Monthly Archives: December 2018

Day 6 of Christmas: The Magical Surprise!


On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

The big reveal:

A trip to Disney!!!

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Wait, what?!

Yep, we are Florida bound.

After a half a year in the making we surprised the kids on December 23rd with their combined Christmas gift:

A family vacation to Walt Disney World.

It has been a killer secret to keep, especially because of the added red tape of having to get permission at our most recent court hearing to take Brandon out of school and out of state (since he isn’t adopted yet.) We didn’t tell anyone beyond those who had to know… like the judge, lawyers and social workers, but I lived in fear that someone at court would spill the beans and ruin the surprise.

In the months leading up to Christmas we made plans for the big reveal.

This is the third Disney surprise reveal we have done for the kids. The first occurred when the oldest three kids were 13, 11, and 9. We waited until they were at the perfect ages, with the thought it would be a one-time vacation.

The next few years brought the adoption of Tyler and then Ozzie and we couldn’t let the magical experience of a trip to Disney World be an experience reserved for only half our children, so we planned a second trip to Disney World so that the two little boys would get their “once in a lifetime” trip.

Both trips were made known through surprise reveals. Toby loves surprising the people he loves with grand gestures, but because our older kids know how Toby operates, surprising them has become more and more difficult, especially with something as big and complex as a Disney World vacation.

So when we realized that the widow of opportunity to take our entire family to Disney, and allow Brandon to create shared memories with us at one of our very favorite places, we knew it need to happen this year,

And we knew pulling off the surprise would be a tall order! 

Grace is almost done with her ASL program and the next year could bring life changes that may take her away from home. Molly is graduating and will most likely be leaving home to go to school or serve a mission. Rusty and Brandon will both be seniors and within the next two years our family structure will most likely change, as kids spread their wings to soar, so this was the time to make it happen…

The question was, “How do we surprise them without them catching on?”

We finally decided that we would plan the big reveal for December 23rd. This decision was based on a few factors.

1.       We wanted to surprise the kids with just immediate family around, knowing that good news and special treats can be triggers for some of our kids that feel unworthy of good things, and those feelings sometimes lead to them sabotaging happy events to prevent good things happening to them.

2.      We wanted it to be a really special moment for the kids to share. We thought telling them on the 23rd rather than Christmas morning might help our kids that struggle on Christmas Day.

3.      We thought that if any of the older kids were suspicious, doing the surprise before Christmas, rather than on Christmas morning might throw them off the scent.

So on the 22nd we slipped away into our room to wrap the presents we had prepared. We had personalized t-shirts made for each of the kids. We ordered each one a draw string bag so they will be able to carry their own water bottles, snacks and personal belongings around the park. In each gift box we also included their magic band and a lanyard with trading pins ordered off Ebay.

We wrapped up their gifts and then in the middle of the night we snuck into the living room and hid the gifts, Disney balloons and the reveal sign inside the trunk in the middle of the living room.

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The following day the kids went about their business, using the trunk as a landing spot for gifts and wrapping paper, having no idea the HUGE surprise hiding within… right in front on their eyes!

When our family gift exchange was complete, and the last sibling gift was unwrapped, we told the kids there was one more gift left to unwrap. We explained that we had purchased a gift for the entire family to share but it was too big to transport to the Homestead so we would let them open it early.

They waited with baited breath, expecting us to carry something in from outside, but instead Toby told them that the gift was hidden in the trunk.

We had them gather around the trunk and open it together. This was so we could be in place on the other side of the couch to catch their reaction.

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And their reaction didn’t disappoint!

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Some squealed,

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Some fell to the ground, overwhelmed by emotion,

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While others stood in shock…their mouths hanging open.

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Their reactions brought feelings of love, joy and gratitude for this dear family of mine…

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Especially for our 17-year-old addition, who is finally receiving some magical moments after a lifetime of tragedy and loss.

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The countdown has begun and I have 6 very excited kids that can’t wait to strap in and head south…

Disney World here we come!

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Day 5 of Christmas: The magic of Christmas morning!


On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

Christmas morning ‘round the Christmas tree.

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Our Christmas morning began as Christmas mornings have begun for centuries,

With the early morning calls of, “Is it time to get up?”

This year, however, those calls came closer to 8:00 am as opposed to years’ past when the question would first be uttered closer to 3:00am.

Toby had set his alarm for 7:15 so that he could drive over and pick up G.G., while Mimi and Pop Pop took care of the farm chores. Brandon asked to accompany Toby, and I stayed behind to hold down the fort and keep kids contained until everyone was back home and had settled into their seats in the living room.

While the adults got situated and claimed their spots for the festivities, I gathered the kids on the stairs for a Christmas morning photo of the kids in their new pajamas.

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Love this crazy crew of Christmas critters!

Then I joined the other adults in the living room, took my spot, and prepared to catch the kids’ expressions on film, as they entered the room and took in the bounty around the tree.

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Christmas morning began, as it always does, with stockings.

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It is by far my favorite part of Christmas morning and always has been. There is something so iconic and magical about unloading a stocking filled with treats, that makes a person feel 8-years-old again.

With squeals of delight, piles of candy, toiletries, match box cars, pens and notebooks, Christmas socks and toys grew around the feet of each child as they unloaded their stockings.

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The adult stockings were generously filled as well, to the point of us needing to use the Christmas bags Gracie sewed last year to catch the overflow of goodies that didn’t fit in the stocking.

Once we were done with stockings, we began unwrapping gifts.

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Brandon asked if he could play Santa this year with Molly’s help, so a round at a time, Brandon and Molly handed out a gift to each family member which we took turns opening.

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After a break for Christmas brunch we continued working our way through the pile, opening gifts wrapped with love from family near and far away.

Some of the treasures unwrapped on Christmas morning included:

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“Let the wild rumpus start!”

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My Christmas gift from my parents. They know me so well!! Love!!

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Gracie’s new ASL t-shirt from Santa. 🙂 

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With a whole lot of ribbing from family about my mid-life crisis crush, I found Aquaman under the tree!

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Rusty loved his new bowtie!

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Their gifts from Uncle Travis and Aunt Krista made the girls look like they stepped out of the “Anne of Green Gables” novel.

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The girls received a jewelry box full of vintage jewelry from Aunt Krista and Uncle Travis as well.

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We finished around noon and spent the afternoon enjoying the company of family, playing games and enjoying our new treasures.

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Pop Pop reading us Mom’s new Christmas book, “The Wonky Donkey.” So funny!!

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Two of my priceless jewels.

Christmas dinner was a feast of ham, cheesy potatoes, green bean casserole, beets, rolls and sunny corn pudding. It was all delicious and I was so busy pigging out that I never thought to stop and take a picture of Christmas dinner.

It was a wonderful Christmas day spent with people I love dearly.

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G.G. with 6 of her great-grandkids.

Merry Christmas 2018!

Day 4 of Christmas: Christmas Eve!


On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

A Christmas Eve with George, the donkey!

IMG_5036 (2)The next round of Christmas fun came the following day when we loaded up two cars with gifts, stocking stuffers, appetizers and children to drive out to my parents’ home.

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Christmas at the Homestead is nothing short of magical and all the kids were eager to share this special tradition with Brandon.

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The tradition of spending Christmas Eve with my parents, and waking up to Santa’s gifts at their home the next day, is an annual tradition. My Mom always makes the holiday so special.

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The kids love the predictability of the traditions that repeat themselves year after year and couldn’t wait to show Brandon why they love Christmas at the Homestead!

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This year was a little different than past years, however. This year my brother and his new bride were celebrating Christmas in Texas with Krista’s family.  My grandmother, now an Ohio resident, is living minutes from my parents’ home, so rather than staying at their home over Christmas, she traveled back and forth from her apartment to the Homestead to join in the activities that she felt up for participating in. This meant for a portion of the Christmas holiday it was just Toby, the kids and I at the Homestead with my parents.

Despite missing our loved ones who were far away this Christmas, we enjoyed another magical Christmas Eve at the Homestead, made all the more special by the addition of our newest son.

We arrived and Brandon got settled in, with the kids showing him where he would be sleeping and explaining what to expect.

The first event of the evening was dinner, with our usual meal of appetizers and hors d’ oeuvers.

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While Dad left with Ozzie to pick up G.G., the rest of the crew began laying out the feast!

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It was another AMAZING spread and when Dad, Ozzie and G.G. returned we ate until we couldn’t eat anymore!

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After a quick clean-up, it was time to convene in the living room, for the talent portion of the evening.

Tyler, Ozzie, and Brandon chose to be audience members, rather than perform, but the oldest three all came with prepared talents to share.

Rusty had prepared two musical pieces to play on the keyboard.

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Molly provided a repeat performance of the musical number she had performed at church on Sunday,

And then the girls both signed to a song they had been working on all month. The musical numbers all brought a sweet spirit to the Homestead, and we all found ourselves wiping away tears, moved by the beauty of the songs.

Tears were quickly followed by laughter as we followed the talent part of the night with the game portion of the evening.

Mom and Dad had purchased a new game for the holidays:

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The premise of this game, developed by Jeff Foxworthy, is to pick a punchline to the start of a joke. Played much like “Apples to Apples,” everyone has a pile of responses that they can pick from and the “comedian” reads them all out load and chooses their favorite.

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The game is rated for 14 and up and we soon discovered why. It was a bit saucy but downright hilarious. I don’t know when I have laughed so hard.

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After getting our ab workout from an hour of belly laughs, my Dad left with G.G., Brandon and Tyler to take Grandma back home for the night. She would return in the morning for all our Christmas fun but would enjoy the comfort of her own bed in her own home overnight.

When Dad and the boys returned, we headed out to the barn for my very favorite part of Christmas…

There in cold and quiet barn, lit only by the luminaries and lights of a small tree, we took our places on bales of hay and listened to the melodious voice of my father as he opened his Bible and read the story of Jesus’ birth.

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The only sound was the shuffling of animals in their stalls.

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There in the barn we reflected on the greatest miracle of humankind that occurred in a similar place 2000 years ago.

There in a dusty stable long ago, surrounded by animals much like these, Mary brought the Savior of the world into this world.

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What a powerful experience it was to reflect on that night, and all it entailed, as we sang the words of “Silent Night,” in the darkness of my parents’ barn.

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When we were done, the animals were all tucked into the stalls.

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We bid them good night.

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And headed for bed…

Eager to see if Santa would make a showing.


Day 3 of Christmas: Christmas at Home!


On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

Our Christmas celebration as a family!

A few years ago we started the tradition of having a pre-Christmas, Christmas celebration with our little family.

This first began as our Christmas ornament exchange the night before we left for my parents’ home to celebrate Christmas with extended family. This is still the case but it has grown into something more…

On December 23rd we have our immediate family’s celebration. On this night we pull out Christmas cookies and eggnog, put on Christmas music, gather in the living room to open our last days on the advent calendar and then read our favorite Christmas book: “Twas the Night Before, the Night Before Christmas.”


We read it every December 23rd.

Then we exchange gifts as a family.

This particular tradition began in the last 5 years when we noticed that the efforts of siblings were not being fully acknowledged or appreciated on Christmas morning when presented side by side with larger gifts from Santa. For the sake of encouraging sibling connection and attachment we decided to start having the kids exchange gifts with each other and give their gifts to mom and dad on the 23rd instead of the 25th.

This also had the added bonus of cutting down on the amount of gifts that had to be loaded in the car to be toted to Ohio on Christmas Eve.

Typically the last gifts that are opened on December 23rd are the annual Christmas ornaments.

Every year we purchase an ornament for each of our children. Their ornament represents something personal about them. It is either reflective of their likes, activities from that year, or a special connection we have with that child.

The kids look forward to pulling out their ornaments every year to hang on the tree and love the idea that when they leave home they will have a box full of childhood Christmas memories to take with them.

This December 23rd was a bit different.

Because it fell on a Sunday, our special day began with church where we enjoyed an hour-long celebration of music and the spoken word as we celebrated the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

The highlight of the day was getting to watch Molly sign to a song performed by the young women. I was moved to tears by the Spirit she brought to the room through her emotional ASL interpretation of the words to the song.

It was a beautiful service.

When we arrived home we enjoyed lunch and Sunday naps before we began our Christmas celebration as a family.

The kids were so eager to give the gifts they had purchased or created with such love, that we agreed to begin the celebration earlier than usual and at 3:30 the fun began.

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All the kids were beside themselves with excitement, eager to give the gifts they had so carefully chosen for each family member.

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It warms my heart to see the sweet relationships that have grown between all my kids, with no division between those who came to this family through birth and those who came through love.

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Once everyone was settled into their places we began the gift exchange with Tyler handing out his gifts first and ending with Grace handing out her gifts last.

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Brandon’s gift from Ozzie.

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Rusty made wooden rubber band guns for his younger brothers.

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Rusty loves comical dress socks to wear with his suit each Sunday. Molly hooked him up with two new pairs.

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Molly received a “Yes Theory” hat from Gracie.

I love that special time with my immediate family.

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Toby and I were spoiled by the kids and felt very loved by the thought that was put into our Christmas gifts.

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Brandon bought Toby a warm hat to wear when he is working outside on cold winter days.

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Rusty painted me a new picture for the living room.

Our awesome afternoon ended on a high note when the girls surprised Toby and I with tickets to go and see Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It was a gift months in the making. They combined their efforts and then really threw us off the scent by “pulling a Toby” and wrapping our tickets in layers of boxes and wrap.

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With the tickets came the offer to babysit so we could enjoy a date night without children, something we haven’t been able to do in a long time.

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What a gift!!

Our evening ended with our Christmas ornament exchange. Each child received an ornament that was personal and reflective of that child and a special connection we share with that child.

Gracie’s ornament:

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Molly’s ornament:

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Rusty’s ornament:

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Ozzie’s ornament:

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Tyler’s ornament:

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And Brandon’s first ornament:

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He was thrilled to start his Christmas ornament collection as a member of the family.

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It was an amazing day that ended with an awesome surprise…

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Stay tuned for that in a future post!


Day 2 of Christmas: Christmas with Mimi!


On the second day of Christmas my true love game to me,

Christmas with Mimi!

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The second day of our weeklong Christmas celebration, brought Christmas with Mimi Joy.

On Saturday Toby’s mom drove over for our Christmas celebration. We had a fun evening planned and we looked forward to celebrating with Mimi.

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When she arrived, we were at the tale-end of getting dinner on the table, so while I finished up the meal that everyone had pitch-in and graciously helped with, Toby and the kids played Christmas trivia in the living room with Joy.

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Soon the food was done and the table set for a festive Christmas dinner.

We feasted on ham, green beans, pasta salad, cheesy potatoes and rolls and enjoyed catching up on each other’s lives after a crazy month.

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After dinner we gathered in the living room for some party games before exchanging gifts.

We started with a high adrenaline game to help Tyler burn off some anxious energy before settling into some calmer, quieter games.

Our first game was “Trim the Tree.” The 6 kids were split into two teams of 3. Rusty and Brandon served as their team’s “Christmas tree” and the other two team mates had to turn each of them in a Christmas tree, using all the supplies I gave them. It was a race to see who could “trim their tree” first.

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It was a race to the finish, and so much fun to watch!

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Brandon, Grace and Tyler emerged as the winners of this first game of the evening,

But the true “winners” of the evening, were those of us who got to sit back and watch the silliness unfold.

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The next game of the evening was “Christmas Plates.” For this game each family member was given a paper plate and a marker. Placing the paper plate upside down on their heads they were challenged to draw out a Christmas scene without the advantage of sight.

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Drawing blindly, they had to follow my directions as I asked them to draw a Christmas scene, piece by piece.

At the end of my instuctions they pulled down their plates and were able to see how they did. Some were better than others!

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We then scored their efforts with a point value placed on things like:

“If your star is touching the top of your tree- 2 points”


“Give yourself 1 point for each Christmas ball you drew on your tree.”

The winner of this game was Toby.

The next game on our party agenda was Christmas Scattergories. Using the alphabet dice and timer from our Scattergories game, we used Christmas themed templates I found online.

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This was a hit with everyone as we stretched our brains to come up with Christmas treats or Christmas characters that began with “J.”

After a few rounds of Scattergories it was time for presents. The kids had all purchased or made a gift for Mimi Joy, and we had surprises for her under the tree to unwrap, but before she unwrapped her pile of surprises, Mimi handed out her gifts to our family.

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Digging into Mimi’s Santa sack, Rusty helped hand out gifts. Once everyone had their present we were given permission to unwrap our gifts all at the same time. She had given us matching gifts that could be used individually or all together. We each received a movie theater gift card for a family movie night. She couldn’t have picked a more perfect gift! We will definitely enjoy our Christmas surprise.

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After everyone had given Mimi their gifts we ended the night with Christmas cookies and the girls performing “Mary Did You Know?” in ASL.

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It was a perfect celebration with family!

Day 1 of Christmas: Co-op Christmas Party!


On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me

A day of fun with our co-op family…


Last Friday we ended a festive week of fun with some of our very favorite people at our annual co-op Christmas party. It was like old times as we reconvened at First Baptist Church in New Castle, our co-op home for the past decade. Although we no longer meet there on a weekly basis, they graciously agreed to let us use our old lunchroom for our Christmas party.

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It was decided that the party would consist of a taco bar lunch and games, ending with a secret Santa gift exchange among the kids.

It was fun to gather together once more!

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We even had some of our co-op graduates in attendance.

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The festivities began with the older kids leading a Christmas trivia game in the back room while the moms decorated the lunchroom and prepared the taco bar.


And then they joined Miss Kathy for some fast-paced, competitive fun:

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When everything was laid out and ready, the kids congregated in the lunchroom to be called one table at a time into the kitchen to make up their tacos, and then return to the lunchroom to feast.

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As kids finished lunch, they headed into the back room to enjoy the photo booth that Miss Rose set up, and then returned to the lunch room to sing a little Christmas Karaoke.

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After everyone had full bellies, we gathered for the White Elephant gift exchange.

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The kids gathered around the pile of white elephant gifts and then proceeded to battle over a few favorite packages.

The fun of White Elephant gift exchanges seem to be in the stealing. The competition is even more heightened when it is a room full of siblings fighting for the most enticing packages.

When the game seemed as though it would never end, we kindly reminded the kiddos they were battling for something that was purchased for a buck at Dollar Tree.

That was followed with a second friendly reminder that the real gift exchange would follow. That brought a quick conclusion to the game.

Holding their White Elephant gift in front of them, the kids un-wrapped their package one at a time, revealing stick-on mustaches, noise makers, dress-up wigs, and other goofy gifts that brought laughs.

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Then it was time for the REAL gift exchange…

Each co-op student had been given the name of another student to buy for in the Secret Santa exchange. Each child took turns handing out the gift they carefully purchased for their assigned friend, and unwrapping the gift that was purchased for them.

There were squeals of delight over the well-chosen gifts, given with love.

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The party ended with crafts and socializing as everyone got in a little more visiting and Christmas well wishes before we had to leave to meet Brandon at home. He had a half day of school and we had some action-packed days ahead of us, so with final hugs of good-bye we headed home.

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Although we left with our arms laden with gifts of love and Christmas treasures, the greatest gift of the day was the gift of time with dear friends!






Christmas Cookie Decorating


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This past weekend was filled with opportunities to make some SWEET memories!

The fun revolved around Christmas Cookies,

And it began with 21st Century Cyber Charter School’s December activity… “Cookie-palooza!”

Last Friday we drove out to Murrysville where Molly, Rusty and Ozzie joined other 21st Century students and teachers for a day packed with fun.


Molly was touched by the unexpected surprise of one of her dearest school friends surprising her by driving 4 hours from his home in Gettysburg, PA to join her for a day of Christmas fun.

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At “Cookie-palooza” the students enjoyed all things sweet; with cookie dough making, cookie baking, and cookie decorating.


Along with all the cookie fun, the students also enjoyed playing Minute-to-Win-It games, making Christmas cards for elderly residents at a local nursing home, and feasting on pizza.


The best part, however, was connecting with friends and enjoying the company of teachers outside the virtual walls of the online classroom.


And Molly enjoyed experiencing it with Irvin.


After the activity Molly and Irvin took advantage of his trip to Pittsburgh by heading over to Barnes and Noble to hang out for a bit before his 4 hour drive back home.


The cookie fun continued over the weekend with Christmas baking. As we sat down as a family at the start of the holiday season, and everyone shared with the family which Christmas tradition was most important to them, Brandon shared that his favorite tradition revolved around Christmas cookies. He told us of the sweet memories he had of holiday baking with his adoptive mom and the joy of getting to eat Christmas cookies for breakfast on Christmas morning. He expressed that the tradition that he most hoped we would make time for this December was cookie baking and decorating. So his wish, along with the other kids’ Christmas wishes were made priorities on the calendar and this past weekend we got busy in the kitchen.

Saturday was spent baking and Sunday we gathered to decorate our pile of cut, cooked, and cooled sugar cookies.

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It was so much fun coming together as a family and enjoying time around the dining room table as we spread and sprinkled to our hearts’ content.

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It was a SWEET time with my very favorite elves.

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Fighting our way through the Holidays



Let me begin with this great little gem I found online,

Written by a fellow mother raising children with a diagnoses of Reactive Attachment Disorder, commonly referred to as RAD, she has rewritten a classic Christmas favorite to reflect our reality…

Ah, my friends, Listen to the song of my people…

“‘Twas the night before Christmas

and I had it bad, thanks to the chaos from

dealing with RAD

The stockings were ripped from the mantle and strewn

in sad tattered heaps all around the whole room

The children were screaming and fighting and clawing

The littlest one on the dog’s leg was gnawing

Hubby in his pj’s, the cat in my lap,

we’d escaped to the den for an urgent nightcap

When all of a sudden, there arose such a clatter

I put down my gin to see what was the matter

Away to the doorway I flew like a flash

to the family room now I made a mad dash

The moon through the window

and lights from the tree

showed me a scene that I didn’t want to see

For what to my tired bleary eyes did appear

but a nightmare unfolding, the worst one this year

The guinea pig shrieked as he hung from the tree

by the ribbon they’d wrapped ‘round his little belly

A furry white ornament, angry and kicking

while the littlest one now her nose busy picking

The next-oldest one I saw swing from a bough

while the short middle child through the room he did plow

Armed with a hockey stick, the little despot

broke a lamp, then a window, and hit me in the butt

Wildly swinging while onward he came

he screamed like a madman and called us all names

“Hey nose-picking poophead!” he shrieked at the baby

“you bit the dog, now she’s given you rabies!

And you’re such a moron, up there in the tree,

you’re just a baboon-bum, a stupid monkey!”

Our 15-year-old daughter, whom we’d left in charge

screamed at her siblings as Christmas loomed large

“You filthy urchins!” she shrieked next to my ear

“It’s just about midnight and Christmas is near!

I’m sick of you all!” she ranted and raved

“You act just like you were brought up in a cave

with badgers and bobcats, and wolverines, too!

Well, guess what’s going to happen to you!

I’m calling Santa! His name’s in my phone

You’ll be on the bad list, and then you’ll all moan!

You’ll pout and you’ll cry and get nothing at all,

while I’ll get the presents! They’ll be wall-to-wall!”

What happened next, I sure could see coming

the savages attacked, and the eldest went running

But before I could gather my wits and step in

to prevent mass murder, a deplorable sin

up on the roof, there arose a commotion

like battleships fighting it out on the ocean

An explosion that made the entire house rock

and down the chimney my next-eldest fell with a squawk

Dressed in a hoodie now covered in ashes

designer jeans ripped-up and brimming with gashes

One shoe was ruined and the other one missing

His glasses were cracked, and the cat ran off hissing

His eyes, they were huge as he looked wildly around

then out of the fireplace he came with a bound

“Everyone run!” he screamed, ignoring my ire

“I blew up the fake Santa, now the house is on fire!”

The kids all ran shrieking, not waiting for me

as I cut the poor guinea pig down from the tree

The shenanigans done really stuck in my craw

but I ran, shoving guinea pig down in my bra

He did not enjoy the wild bumpy ride

as he squeaked and he clawed, but I kept him inside

The kids were all shivering out in the yard

My eldest corralled them, wouldn’t let down her guard

As I yelled for my husband and started back in,

he emerged with our bottle of Tanqueray gin

We sipped and we slugged and we stared like zombies

as the sirens, they wailed, and the neighbors looked pleased

The dog and the cat had escaped without fail

they ran like the devil was hot on their tails

The fire was soon out, the house it was saved

yet I still had to deal with my clan, so depraved

But first to my bed, where I dropped like a stone

inserted my earplugs and turned off my phone

As I crawled ‘neath the covers, whimpering and sore

exhausted and beaten, and yet I still swore

that when Christmas is over, I’ll do it, you’ll see

Our family is headed to RAD therapy!”

It is only funny because it’s true! 

The true test of whether you are raising your own little “RAD-ish” is if you find yourself with tears running down your legs from laughing too hard!

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A few days ago I had the opportunity to take part in an interview for an adoption newsletter. The article was penned for the purpose of helping families with older foster children navigate the unique challenges of the Christmas season. As I considered what lessons we have learned after 6 years of Christmases with our kids from hard places, I thought first about the reasons why the Christmas season gets so ugly around our home…

Here are 7 possible “WHYs” behind the holiday struggle:

#1:  They feel unworthy.

Abandonment or the perception of abandonment in children who have been adopted  can lead to a deep sense of shame. This may make them feel as if they are unworthy of love, unworthy of having good things happen to them, unworthy of gifts or attention. With that entrenched feeling of being unworthy of truly feeling happy, sabotaging behaviors can begin to emerge. They may sabotage so that they can force what they see as inevitable disappointment. If their parent then responds in anger to their sabotaging behavior, it only further validates their belief that they are unlovable.

#2: They find themselves triggered.

During the holidays, triggers are everywhere. Smells, sights, sounds, memories of the past… the holidays can be a minefield to navigate. These triggers can cause a fight, flight or freeze response.

#3: Excitement and anxiety can feel the same in their little bodies.

Butterflies in the stomach, quickening of breathing rate, a loudly thumping heart, sweating, and trouble sleeping are the same body responses whether you are feeling excited or nervous. When your child feels those body sensations, it can bring memories of times of stress when they felt that way due to anxiety and fear.

#4: They are overwhelmed with the weight of expectations.

When a child believes that he will fall short of the expectations placed on him, he may decide to just quickly blow things up to get it over with. The stress that come with anticipating the disappointment they may cause can be overwhelming.

#5: They can’t handle the increased family connections.

For children with Reactive Attachment Disorder, Christmas can be a nightmare because during the holiday season relationships are usually the focus and there is more emphasis put on family togetherness and unity. This feels like a threat to kids who are putting protective walls up when it comes to family relationships.

#6: They are overcome with grief.

Holidays have so many things that can magnify grief, sadness and loss.

#7: They are focused on self-preservation and protection.

Attempting to protect their heart from further disappointment, a child who has experienced early trauma will put walls up and push others away. With everything being magnified during the holidays, those walls have a tendency to go higher and that pushing away can turn to an aggressive shove (literally or figuratively).


Knowing the possible reasons behind the struggle somehow makes the struggle slightly more manageable, or at least makes it feel a little less cruel and personal. It can help us to develop feelings of empathy rather than the resentment and defeat that can penetrate our hearts when the behaviors are all directed at the adoptive mother simply because she is the primary nurturer in the family…AKA “Mortal Enemy #1.”

Knowing the “WHY” then allows us to implement the “HOW TOs” as a family, and successfully navigate the minefield known as the holiday season.

Here are some of the tried and true strategies I shared during the interview: 

Adjust Expectations-

This is by far the greatest determining factor of whether the holidays will bring joy or disappointment, and it is a lesson that was only learned through a lot of mistakes and failings on our part. I think the holidays can sometimes bring a heightened level of anxiety as we feel the pressure of turning December into a Hallmark channel movie. Our expectations increase as we make plans for a magical Christmas season. I think this pressure is one most Moms can relate to, but those who find themselves opening their homes to children who have not been able to experience the normal childhood magic of Christmas, due to heartbreaking beginnings, might find this pressure increased 10 fold. In an effort to make up for a lost childhood, we increase the Christmas magic factor by 100 and rather than a comfortable sprinkling of Christmas joy, we hit our kiddos with a fire hose blast of Christmas Spirit. What began with such loving intentions very often cannot be received in the same spirit.

For kids whose “normal” is chaos and conflict, the overabundance of cheer, connection, traditions and loving gestures may feel more like an itchy wool sweater than that “warm blanket hug” you were going for. I know this to be true for one of our adoptions treasures specifically. Holidays and birthdays are sure triggers for the most challenging of his behaviors and every special family tradition and gesture of love is met with efforts to sabotage and push away the family. This is a tough pill to swallow as a parent. But the reality is: my December is filled with more chaos than joy (at least the Hallmark version of Christmas joy) but if I can set aside my pre-conceived ideas of what a happy holiday season should look like and accept more time will be spent on the trauma therapist’s couch than on Santa’s lap, I can face our new normal with joyful acceptance.

Prepare for the Inevitable- 

This is another HUGE one! I have learned with my kids that is it never a question of “if,” but rather a question of “when.” I know that December will be fraught with meltdowns, broken decorations, holes in the drywall, sleepless nights, self-harming thoughts, suicidal ideation, sabotaging behaviors including coming out of my room to find purchased Christmas presents ripped open and destroyed, or all the Christmas cookies that were baked, gorged on and consumed in the 5 minutes I was out of the room. I know December will probably bring more than one trip to Western Psych., many angry chants of “I hate you!” and more tears than giggles as my kids mourn the families that have failed them. I know more that one night will be spent staying up long past midnight as I hold one of my crying biological children as they struggle with resentment towards a hurting sibling who responds with cruelty to every kind gesture, and inevitably by the 31st of the month I will be so emotionally drained and physically exhausted by the heightened levels in our home for the last 30 days, that I will close out the year with a bout of the flu.

I say this not from a place of pessimism or self pity, but from a place of experience and realistic expectations. If I can enter the month anticipating the patterns that I have seen in the past, then I can be prepared for the inevitable and respond in a more measured and loving way, rather than responding with anger and frustration. I have learned to keep presents hidden and have emergency spares set aside for sibling or teacher gifts that are destroyed in anger. I have learned to keep my bedroom locked with all my most precious items safely tucked away until the heighten season of Christmas is over. I am more diligent with door alarms and security cameras, and I don’t leave my emotionally heightened children alone with siblings or any of the animals, knowing that their ability to make good choices is compromised when they are in fight, flight or freeze mode. I make allowances. I give second chances. I ALWAYS have a plan B figured out. I prepare for the worst so that when it comes it is manageable and hopefully all can make it through the crisis fairly unscathed.

Find Joy in this Season of Life…even if it is not Ideal-

This one is so hard but so important. It took me a while to figure this one out and even longer for me to accept it and embrace it with joyful acceptance. It requires a surrender of self to God’s plan. It means letting go of what Christmas pasts might of looked like and accept that for this season of temper tantrums the good china will be put away and paper plates will showcase Christmas dinner. It may mean the days of large Christmas parties are put on hold for a few years and December evenings are spent watching movies and going to bed early. If the smells of a Christmas dinner trigger your hurting kiddos, then Christmas dinner may have to be Chinese take-out for a few years.

But regardless of what this season of Christmas looks like, the joy of Christmas can be found in the absurd and unorthodox…because the joy is born from love of family.

Last Sunday some of our kids were in crisis. We were at the end of ourselves and I wept tears of defeat after a week of challenges. My magical Christmas season was dissolving before my eyes as words of hate and anger filled the house rather than songs of goodwill. Everyone was hurting. All were grieving. Relationships were crumbling and it was time for emergency triage. We were suffering from blood loss after some major war injuries and we made a judgement call to meet the needs of our hurting children and find joy in our journey even though it wasn’t “ideal.” Everyone was sent to their rooms to put on PJs and we declared it a relationship recovery day. We spent the day praying as a family, watching videos of the birth of Christ, making family memories as we decorated sugar cookies and played games. We served each other and others and ended our day by turning off all the lights, except for the Christmas tree, and participating in a time of worship as we watched a silent Christmas lesson and allowed the spirit of Christmas…the spirit of Christ…to permeate our home and our hearts.

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Here is link to the Silent Christmas Lesson we watched as a family:

Was it what an ideal December Sabbath would have looked like five years ago?


But it was exactly what was needed that day, in this season of life.

See the Need/Meet the Need-

Some of our long-time readers might remember a blog post I wrote a few years ago about a strategy we use in our home when our boys are emotionally heightened. It is a strategy we continue to use today and one I shared in the interview…

I am speaking of the McCleery holiday nerf wars!


Entering the Christmas season with expectations that the next four weeks will be fraught with conflict and chaos, we make sure we enter the holiday season armed with tools and strategies to meet our kids’ emotional needs before the explosions occur. This takes preparation and awareness of what your kiddos’ triggers are and what coping skills are most effective for each of them. Knowing this, I am able to make sure we have the tools in place prior to the need. I load up on dollar store stress balls, fidget toys, bouncy balls, etc. but the #1 tool for managing my boys’ need for conflict and chaos during the Christmas season is nerf battles. By giving them a healthy and connecting way to escalate they are able to have their emotional need for chaos met in an emotionally healthy way.

Kids who come from an abusive situations have a different brain chemistry than a child who has never lived in the turbulent, high stress environment of an abusive home. As a result they become accustomed, from a very young age, to a constant surge of adrenaline as they live in “fight or flight mode,” never knowing when the next strike will come.

To feel calm they need that adrenaline release, so our job is to find ways to meet that need in a healthy, happy, PARENT LED way.

Our favorite strategy: family nerf battles!

So, with the tree twinkling in the background we have engaged in frequent, much-needed nerf battles so that our struggling kiddos could have their emotional needs met. As we neared the holiday season we made sure the guns were collected and placed in a basket in the corner and that our nerf bullet supply was replenished, for just a time as this:

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Remember the Reason for the Season-

This is by far the strategy I have found to be most affecting. Remembering the reason for the season allows us to regain perspective and adjust our expectations. It allows us to find joy in imperfection. It is important to remember that this time of year isn’t about the traditions, the decorations, the perfect tree, the delicious dinner, the ideal reactions to perfectly wrapped gifts…

It is about love.

It has been from the very beginning.

There was nothing “ideal” about that first Christmas…

There was poverty.

There was homelessness.

There was filth and pain and rejection as a young husband, a simple man with little worldly offerings, begged for a place for his wife to give birth.

A young woman, heavy with child, with no place to lay her head, brought her baby into the world in a place of dirt and filth.

There was no family surrounding her, no words of support from anyone other than her husband.

The only sounds accompanying her moans of pain were the baaing and bleating of farm animals.

There was nothing “ideal” or “Hallmark” about that first Christmas, and yet it was perfect. Not because of where they were, or what they wore, or what they ate, or who was there, or because of the gifts that were given.

It was perfect because it was born of sacrifice.

It was born of redemption.

It was born of faith.


That is what Christ offers each of us.

That is what He offers our hurting children.

That is what He offers our hurting world.

That is the key to navigating the holidays with children from hard places…

Nothing matters except this:

Let it be born of love and the rest will fall into place.

Merry Christmas

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia


It is always sunny in Philadelphia,

And if by chance it isn’t…

This crew will bring their own sunshine!


Two weeks ago Grace had the opportunity to join a group of friends from church on a Christmas road trip to the great city of Philadelphia.

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One of her friends (Andrea) had attended graduate school there and invited Grace (along with a big group of friends from church) to join her for a holiday trip to Philly.

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The trip was planned around a winter formal that was occurring at a YSA ward out there, but the group made plans to stay for the entire weekend and take in the sites of Philadelphia.

They were not disappointed. The city was dressed to the nines in lights and baubles,

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And Grace had a magnificent time taking in the sites with this awesome group of friends.


They visited the Philadelphia temple (multiple times):



They feasted at the famous Reading Terminal Market:

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They enjoyed a walking art tour of the murals around the city:

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They spent an evening at Longwood Gardens enjoying the magical Christmas displays:

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They ate MANY good meals:


They enjoyed the sites and sounds of historic Philadelphia:

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And they even ran the famous “Rocky” steps:

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It was an action packed few days and Grace came home eager to share the tales of her adventures.

It was wonderful hearing about the fun she had.

I feel such gratitude for sweet friendships she has made within the Pittsburgh YSA congregation. She is enjoying this next stage of life and had transitioned into the world of adult responsibilities beautifully. She is loving school and is nearing the completion of her American Sign Language degree. She is thriving at church and has been blessed with an amazing group of friends who keep her social calendar filled to the brim.

As a Momma, I couldn’t ask for anything more.

I’m so happy my oldest daughter is so happy.


My cup overfloweth!


Co-op Christmas fun at Kraynak’s


This school year has been one full of changes.

Most of those changes are a result of wonderful life changes that have occurred in the last four months, but some of those changes bring feelings of loss as we look back on past years and acknowledge the transition we have had to make into a new season of life.

The end of a chapter is hard no matter how amazing the next chapter promises to be, and no closing chapter has been more difficult than that of our co-op’s dissolution.

It has been an unusual school year in that after a decade of our Wednesdays being committed to our co-op, we now find that day free from commitments. For years our week revolved around the planning, preparing and packing that was involved in this weekly activity. It was a lot of work in the beginning, when the kids were small and each of us moms were preparing for and then teaching 3-4 classes every Wednesday, but we did it because we loved it…

We loved the friendships we saw developing between our children.

We loved the amount of learning that was accomplished in one day.

We loved the experiences we could offer our children that can be challenging in a home school environment (like Valentine’s Day parties, yearbooks, and talent shows.)

We loved the hands-on learning that happened under the guidance of a teacher that wasn’t “Mom,” with classmates that weren’t siblings.

We loved the support we found in each other as we navigated the challenges of life with friends who soon became so much more than friends.

Co-op was the greatest blessing of my “home schooling” journey,

And my heart shattered a bit when we all realized that this season of life was drawing to a close.

Our children who were kindergarteners when this adventure began, are now graduating high school and the purpose that the co-op was created for had been fulfilled. We no longer needed to gather weekly to get assignments done and the kids no longer craved the Valentine card exchanges and Halloween parties. We knew the end had come, but none were emotionally ready to give up the connection that was such an integral part of our lives for so long.

So, we came up with a plan…

The plan was to meet twice a month for a social get-together with each co-op mom taking on the task of planning for a month of the school year.

This past Friday was the first of two planned outings for December.

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We met at Kraynak’s, a toy store/candy shop/garden center/gift shop/Christmas wonderland… in Hermitage, PA.

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“From September 10th thru December 31st, Imagine a world of make-believe with twinkling lights, glittering trees, and a magical array of life-like characters. “Santa’s Christmas Land” is a 300-foot, indoor starlight avenue of uniquely designed artificial Christmas trees. Each tree has a specific theme that is enhanced and complimented by surrounding scenery and a cast of life-like animated characters.”

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Christmas Land is comprised of different vignettes of Christmas scenes.

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 Music is playing and the smells of Christmas fill the hallway that guides visitors through the different scenes.

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It is magical and we look forward to seeing how the displays change from year to year.

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Everyone has their favorites,

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And it is a fun Christmas activity that is free to enjoy…

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(If you can make it through the toy store and candy aisle’s that you must pass to get to the displays.)

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It is actually a pretty brilliant marketing strategy,

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And we buy into it every year.

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And LOVE it year after year.

It was so much fun enjoying this Christmas tradition with our co-op family, and catching up after a month apart.

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We love our co-op family and loved getting to spend some time with our dear friends.

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Next activity on the calendar: Our annual Co-op Christmas party!!