Tag Archives: family

It went by in a FLASH!

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It is hard to believe it has been a little over a year since Braden moved in, and a mere seven months since he became our son. In so many ways it feels like he has been a part of our family forever and I can’t imagine life without him. It makes me sick to think of what could have been had we let fear, rather than faith, guide us in the decision to say “yes.”

Fear of what could go wrong hijacked our thoughts when we first received the call asking us if we would consider opening our home and hearts to a 17-year-old boy…Tyler’s biological brother. There were so many reasons to be nervous, so many unknowns, so many shared horror stories that we found ourselves paralyzed by the anxiety of the unknown. We didn’t realize it at the time but what should have scared us was the consideration of all that we would miss by saying “no.”

Luckily we were blessed with a social worker that didn’t accept our knee jerk reaction, driven by ignorance and fear, and instead supported us as we navigated our way through our questions and concerns.

She didn’t give up on us and neither did God, who had plans that were bigger than our own agenda and blueprint for our life. He heard our concerns and answered them with His truth, spoken with compassion and love…

Giving us the opportunity to be part of something so much bigger and better than ourselves.

That isn’t to say that the journey from a year ago to today was easy, smooth or without trials and triggers. It isn’t easy growing a family, and with the addition of another child comes growing pains. Adoption is hard but there is something humbling and divine  about getting to participate in something so heavenly orchestrated.

Our adoption journey with Braden has taught me to trust God’s plan and timing, even when it runs counter to our own plans for life.

When we said yes to adopting a 17-year-old boy I was overwhelmed by the task ahead of me and felt the pressure of time against me, wondering what difference we could make in Braden’s life with only a year of childhood left before he was legally an adult. I had experienced the long, arduous journey of attachment with both Tyler and Ozzie and knew how long and hard the road to attachment was. Could we make a difference in a year?  Would we even be able to scratch the surface of attachment after all the loss he has lived through and all the walls of protection he has had to build for self preservation?

Luckily, my Lord is bigger than my logic and He has proved time and time again that He is a God of miracles. He can move mountains, He can heal hearts. And he can grow families, regardless of the worldly obstacles that seem unmovable in reaching that goal.

It has only been a year but this sweet boy has my heart. How grateful I am that God didn’t let fear drive our decision. I can’t imagine our life or our family without him…

This week we celebrated his 18th birthday!

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Braden’s birthday celebration was split between two days. This was due to a special request he had for his birthday. He wanted to visit a haunted house!

Knowing that most haunted houses would be shut down by the first weekend in November, we made plans to celebrate his birthday a week early so as to grant his birthday request. On the Saturday before his birthday we made plans to visit a haunted house as a family, but first we met up with Grace and Zach for dinner!

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Braden wanted wings for his birthday dinner so we met at a local wing joint that boasts 100 different wing flavors.

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Everyone ordered a dozen wings of their chosen flavor and then we enjoyed a buffet of tastes as we passed the different wing flavors around the table so everyone could try one of each flavor.

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It was a delicious pre-birthday dinner!

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When dinner was complete Grace and Zach opted to bow out rather than join us at Freddy’s Haunts.

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Braden was very excited to visit this haunted house.

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He had never been to a haunted house before and was excited to experience the thrill of fright as we navigated our way through the haunted halls of this local fear factory. We also happened to be visiting on their “black-out weekend” when an already spooky experience gets amped up by the absence of lights.

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Each group is given a single glow stick to guide them through the darkness.

Forming a human chain and holding tightly to the family member ahead of us, Braden led us through a maze of dark hallways as spooks jumped out and stalked us for the hour and a half it took us to find our way out.

It was a creepy as you might imagine…

And Braden loved it!

The following Wednesday…on Braden’s actual birthday…we celebrated his 18th birthday.

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His birthday theme was built around his favorite superhero: The Flash!

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Many of his gifts reflected this theme, including gifts from Mimi Joy,

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And his gift from Rusty:

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He loved the love put into his special day and the gifts that were so thoughtfully chosen by friends and family.

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His gift from Mom and Dad was the BMX bike he’s been wishing for.

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Happy birthday, son. We can hardly believe you are 18…

This year has gone by in a FLASH!

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How blessed we feel to call you our son!

 

Carving Pumpkins

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This past week, in preparation for Halloween, pumpkins were gathered and knives were sharpened for some gruesome and gross fun…

It was time to carve our jack o’ lanterns!

This is one of my favorite holiday traditions. Not because I love digging my hands into the cold, slimy guts of a pumpkin, but because it is a tradition that draws my heart to my own childhood memories and the memories of years past with my own children. Like so many of the holiday traditions that are repeated year after year, pumpkin carving serves as a connecting thread that ties us together as a family, builds shared memories, and draws us closer to each other.

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I am a huge believer in the importance of family traditions, whether speaking of holiday traditions or day to day traditions. I believe family traditions serve as a glue, connecting us to each other. I believe they are an essential element of family life, but they are even more important when trying to build connection with new family members. We have discovered through our journey of adoptions that shared family traditions can be a catalyst to bonding and building feelings of belonging.

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And they are fun!

They force us, as parents, to set aside the urgent tasks of the day for the important things…

Connecting with our children in a lighthearted, silly way.

So, on the Sunday before Halloween we carved lack o’ lanterns with the boys for our family night activity, and while we carved I used the following family home evening lesson from LDS Daily to liken the experience to a spiritual lesson.

One of the most recognized symbols of Halloween is a jack-o-lantern. People love to take pumpkins and make beautiful creations. Many years ago, people from Ireland brought the tradition of making jack-o-lanterns to America. It comes from the story of a man named Jack who roamed the earth after he died and needed a light to see.

But the Irish didn’t have pumpkins! They used turnips, potatoes, and other gourds to make their jack-o-lanterns. When Irish immigrants started coming to America, they discovered the pumpkin was easier to carve and much bigger.

Today, jack-o-lanterns are a part of the Halloween tradition. But did you know we can learn about Jesus Christ from the jack-o-lantern?

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 We are like this pumpkin. God picks us from the patch for a special purpose. He has brought us to Earth and to families where he helps us become clean. All the dirt is washed off of us.

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God can ask us to do hard things. Sometimes we are asked to go through trials or illnesses. We make mistakes and need to repent. God wants to change our hearts so we can be more like him. This is like when we cut off the top of the pumpkin and scoop out all the yucky pumpkin goo.

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 There are seeds inside the pumpkin. Inside of us, we have seeds of doubt, fear, or anger. God removes these seeds and instead turns them into seeds of faith, hope, and charity. This is like when we clean off all the seeds and cook them so they’re yummy.

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God wants us to have joy in this life and in the life to come. He helps us have a smiling face of peace.

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With the jack-o-lantern, we carve a smile and put a light inside. We have the light of Jesus Christ inside of us that can shine bright for everyone to see.”

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Happy Halloween from our house to yours!

The Big Day!

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We awoke Thursday morning, our hearts all aflutter…

It was Gracie’s wedding day!!

On Wednesday we headed out to Philadelphia where we would be setting up camp at a Home2 Suites. We booked two rooms for two nights and slept like babies upon arriving Wednesday night.

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On Thursday morning, after a tasty complimentary breakfast, we set to work, preparing for the day. While the boys enjoyed the hotel pool, the girls and I began pressing wrinkles out of wedding outfits and preparing for the day.

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At 11:00 we began getting dolled up for the big event.

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With the Mama Mia soundtrack serving as the background music to our day, we curled, pinned, and glossed our way into bridal beauty.

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Gracie’s heirloom engagement ring was beautifully complimented by the Color Street French tip manicure she gave herself the night before. A beautiful $14.00 manicure that looked like a million bucks!

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Final touches…

My already lovely daughters became show stoppers with the addition of bridal dresses and high heels.

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The beautiful bride and her maid of honor.

Then it was time for the boys to get gussied up. They all looked dapper in their matching ties, sewn by the bride and groom prior to the wedding.

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The fathers’ ties were gifted with a personalized iron-in tag printed with a message of love to the dads from the bride and groom.

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The male relatives also all received a beautiful metal tie tacks in the shape of the Philadelphia temple to wear to the wedding, while the girls all received beautiful scarfs to warm them against the October chill of the day.

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The mothers of the bride and groom also received personal gifts. Gracie gave me mine at the hotel before leaving for the wedding and I’m so glad she did.

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As I read her note of love the tears began to fall…

I was a mess as I read the inscription on my wedding day hankie and the loving message she penned in my copy of “Love you Forever.”

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Zach’s mother, Sherrie, received her wedding day hankie from Grace and a matching book from Zach at the luncheon they hosted prior to the big event.

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After many tears and lots of loving embraces, it was time to go. We were meeting the groom at the temple at 2:00 for photos. We opted to do wedding photos prior to the ceremony, as their 7:30 pm wedding ceremony would mean it would be dark afterwards and make wedding photos more of a challenge.

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Grace asked me to take their wedding photos rather than hire someone else to do it, so with Molly’s help we spent the next hour capturing the love Gracie and Zach share.

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The biggest challenge was the wind. With 30-40 mile an hour gusts, we found ourselves battling the elements.

It was a good thing I used an entire packet of bobby pins in Gracie’s hair! Despite the winds, her hair didn’t move.

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Molly and I didn’t fare so well!

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At 3:30 we strolled across the street to enjoy the luncheon  so lovingly put on by the groom’s family for the guests that traveled in for the wedding.

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The spread was amazing,

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And everyone enjoyed the time we had to celebrate the blessings of the day over good food and in the company of good friends.

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Following the meal, we took advantage of the beautiful courtyard that stands in the center of the church to take family photos with the bride and groom…

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Two families joined together in love.

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So much love in one place!

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Then it was time to stroll across the street to the temple and begin getting ready for the marriage ceremony. While the parents helped the bride and groom get ready, the siblings headed to the parking garage to decorate the “getaway car,” as Tyler called it.

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The boys each made posters ahead of time,

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And packed balloons and window markers to decorate Zach’s car.

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They did a stellar job with the help of Zach’s niece and some of his sisters.

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Then it was time for the big event, and it was beautiful! With tears of joy streaming down their cheeks, the bridcommitted themselves before family, friends, and Heavenly Father to love and honor each other from this day forward with a love that is never-ending and will endure into the eternities. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

They exited the Philadelphia temple to cheers of delight,

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As family and friends embraced them in love…

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Then it was time to say goodnight to the new Mr. and Mrs. Tame!

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Next big event: The reception!

 

A Visit to Oz

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We were overly dressed for the zoo due to our plans to head to the Palmyra LDS temple following our visit. Ozzie just wanted to dress up for the occasion. The result: A sweet Amish family stopping us at the zoo to inquire if we were Mennonites. 🙂 

Last Wednesday was our first off-grounds visit with Ozzie since his placement at Harborcreek Residential Treatment Facility back in May. This is his second stay there and it has been an immense blessing. The facility is astounding and Ozzie thrives under the structure, care, and therapies offered there. In an ideal world we would be able to meet Ozzie’s extreme therapeutic needs at home through outpatient services, but his history of extreme abuse and neglect prior to adoption, coupled with his multiple diagnoses, make the level of therapeutic care needed for healing unrealistic in an outpatient form. Our hope is that an extended stay at this RTF, with its many forms of therapy and its superb staff, will facilitate a level of healing that his therapist at home can’t achieve in two hours a week.

At Harborcreek Ozzie is eagerly involved and engaged in multiple therapeutic groups daily in addition to art therapy, music therapy, trauma release yoga, EMDR therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma therapy and family therapy weekly. He also attends school on campus for a half day and participates in work release program at the carpentry workshop a few days a week where he has the opportunity to learn carpentry skills. With other boys that qualify for this privilege, he is learning to build picnic benches which are then sold to local businesses and organizations. He loves his time with the work release team.

Every Wednesday I drive 2 1/2 hours up to Erie to have a family session with Ozzie. This is not required. In fact most parents participate in these weekly therapy sessions over the phone, as families are scattered across the state of Pennsylvania,  but I have found Ozzie makes more progress in his healing with one-on-one, face-to-face support and accountability. We have turned these family therapy days into weekly social visits. Rather than taking advantage of open visiting hours for family every Sunday from 1-4 pm (which is what we did each week during his last stay there,) I piggyback a social visit following these weekly family therapy sessions. It has worked out well, as it was always a challenge to fit in church and get up to Erie before visiting hours were over. It made Sundays stressful and took us away from our other kids on the one day of the week we have everyone home together for family time. With this new routine I am able to focus on Ozzie that day and enjoy an extended visit with him following therapy where our time is spent playing the board games I bring with me.

Now that he has been at Harborcreek for three months, and is doing so well there, the next step is transitioning those skills to the home environment. This is especially important for Ozzie, as his ability to self manage is far more challenging when he is around family and is being shown love than it is for him in an institutionalized setting that is more structured, disconnected and impersonal. The first step in this transition process (which will probably occur over the course of six months) is to begin introducing short off campus visits with siblings. These short visits give everyone a chance at reconnection while also allowing us to increase Ozzie’s emotional discomfort and observe his reaction to emotional triggers so that when he returns back to Harborcreek at the conclusion of the off-grounds visit he can process through the experience (and the resulting behaviors) with his trauma therapist and come up with strategies to implement next visit.

It was decided that for his first off-grounds visit with siblings we would just bring Molly and Grace. Both girls are well versed in how to manage Ozzie in an emotionally healthy way without being triggered themselves, so we thought it best to set everyone up for success and just bring the girls. It was especially important for Molly to attend as she will be leaving for school in Idaho in two weeks and I felt it important that she and Ozzie have a visit before an extended separation. There were hurts that needed healing in their relationship with Molly being one of Ozzie’s primary targets before he was admitted to the RTF. We were granted a two-hour off-grounds visit and we chose to head to the Erie Zoo.

The zoo was the perfect choice for the girls’ first visit with Ozzie since seeing him in his dysregulated state last spring. I could tell both were apprehensive and a bit nervous, but hopeful that healing was possible. I felt a visit to the zoo would be a good environment for their first visit together. My thought was that at the zoo wee would have the benefit of being able to move around as we talked and have plenty of conversation starters as we experience the zoo. Also, I have found that animals have an emotionally calming/therapeutic effect on all my kids, so I figured it would increase the likelihood of everyone staying regulated, thus ensuring a positive visit among siblings.

We arrived at the zoo following a family therapy session that included all of us and Ozzie’s trauma therapist. We started our visit with a picnic lunch that we packed and brought along with us.

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Once everyone’s bellies were full we started our exploration of the zoo.

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The charm of the Erie zoo is found in its historic roots. Opened in 1929 it has a charm that isn’t seen in modern zoos. It is on the smaller size which made it perfect for the amount of time allotted for our visit with Ozzie, and there were just enough exhibits to entertain us during those two hours.

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We all enjoyed strolling through the zoo looking at the animals and watching them interact with each other.

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The Orangutans were especially charming as they had a little one in the group who was a delight to watch. I could have spent all day at that exhibit!

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Ozzie’s favorite animal was of course the donkey. He has a thing for donkeys!

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He also loved the train display set up in the center courtyard.

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As we walked around the zoo he was able to point out some of the picnic tables they make in the Harborcreek carpentry shop and sell to the Erie Zoo. He was quite proud to claim some ownership in finished project.

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It was a beautiful day and everyone had a good time. The interactions were positive and the kids enjoyed getting time together.

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We are one step further down the road to healing past hurts.

And Life marches on!

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The summer continues to race by at a breakneck speed. I can hardly believe it is mid-July. It has been an action-packed summer with one big event following the next. I’ve been so busy living life that I often forget to sit down and record the happenings of life,

So here it is…

A quick update on the latest and greatest at Patchwork Farm.

Rusty returned from Scout Camp, having had an awesome week despite record high temperatures and an aggressive swarm of mosquitoes. He returned home looking like a victim of a smallpox epidemic, but was smiling nonetheless.

July 9th was Chick-fil-A’s “Cow Appreciation Day.”

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This is a favorite tradition in the McCleery household, offering up all our favorite things:

A solid theme, group costumes, and free food!

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We have been enjoying this annual event for years…

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And this year was no exception.

But our numbers were down a bit due to kids’ work schedules and a resistant family member that looked at me, incredulous, and stubbornly insisted, “It would take more than a free chicken sandwich to convince me to dress up like a cow!”

Spoilsport!

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But those who did choose to participate joined hundreds of other “cows” at Cranberry’s Chick-fil-A for a fun, festive, and FREE chicken dinner.

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Thanks, Chick-fil-A!

And while he had no interest in transforming into a cow for a free chicken sandwich, Braden has been busy with other transformative projects, particularly the loft outside his bedroom.

Last Saturday he approached Toby with plans to transform the sitting area outside his bedroom into a teen “lounge” for hanging out and playing games. He had a vision already in mind and money set aside from his paychecks to bring his vision to life. His plan: tear up the carpeting, lay down a wood floor and paint the current yellow walls a smoky grey. Impressed by his initiative to take on a home DIY project independently, and his willingness to fund the project, we gave him the go ahead. After a quick trip to Home depot, he and Toby began laying the floor.

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Two days later paint went up on the walls.

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The space is quickly transforming into what will be a fun, teen, hang-out area. I’ll post pictures at the completion of the room make-over.

One of the biggest events from the last week was the wedding of Gracie’s best friend and future sister-in-law, Stephanie. Steph and Grace became friends when they found themselves sitting side by side in a Sunday school class at age 10. Who knew 11 years later they would both be “brides-to-be” and soon-to-be sisters.

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Stephanie and Gracie…4 years ago today! And look, Gracie’s future husband in the background!

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The Tame and McCleery girls.

A year ago, before Grace and Zach were even an item, Stephanie asked Grace to be her maid of honor. What a sweet turn of events it is that she finds herself now engaged to Steph’s big brother.

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The responsibilities of her role in Stephanie’s wedding has kept her schedule busy for the last few weeks, but Gracie has loved being an active participant in her friend’s big day and an extra set of helping hands to her soon-to-be second family.

The festivities began the week prior to the wedding with the bachelorette party. Molly and I were invited to join Grace, the Tame gals, and some of Stephanie’s friends for a night of creativity. It was a fun, festive celebration of the bride-to-be at a local craft studio called “Artsy Doodle.”

While there we each had the opportunity to make a burlap door hanging. There were so many cute choices but in the end the McCleery girls (and Melanie) each chose the pick-up truck door hanging.

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It was such a fun evening and the finished results of everyone’s efforts were nothing short of charming!

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One week later it was Stephanie’s big day!

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Grace giving her maid-of-honor speech.

I don’t think I have ever seen a more beautiful bride.

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Stephanie performing a song for her groom.

It was a beautiful day filled with love, laughter, friends and family.

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Next up: Gracie and Zach…Only 3 months until their big day!

 

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Escaping to the Homestead

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We find our summer flying by at a breakneck speed. It seems like just yesterday was Molly’s graduation, but the calendar says otherwise. Six weeks have passed since that monumental day and we are now halfway through summer and eight weeks away from Molly’s departure to Idaho for college. I find myself wanting to pump the breaks and slow down time. Since that is an impossibility, I find myself trying to steal moments of stillness whenever I can, soaking up the last of this season of “normalcy” before life changes once again and we find ourselves down two daughters: one to college and another to marriage.

This last week I was able to capture a day of memories to file away for future reflection when we escaped to the Homestead for a day of celebrations.

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My Aunt Denise was in town for the month, following my grandma’s 90th birthday celebration. Since Aunt Denise lives so far away, and getting to visit with her is a rare and treasured treat, we decided to squeeze in a visit before she had to head home. My parents invited us over for a Sunday dinner and a celebration of all the big events from the past two months.

Every few months we try to carve out an afternoon for Sunday dinner at the Homestead, and while there we celebrate all the big events of that quarter of the year. This visit we found ourselves celebrating Toby’s birthday, Father’s Day and Molly’s graduation, with Molly’s graduation being the focus of the day.

We arrived, after a 2 1/2 hour drive, to find the barn decorated and ready for the party.

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Zach joined us, as he will soon be an official member of the family…

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97 days till they say “I do!”

We enjoyed a yummy picnic lunch in the barn.

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It was warm, but the open doors provided a breeze, helped along by a couple box fans.

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When Lunch was over, Molly was presented with her graduation gift from Mimi and Pop pop. Following tradition, they presented Molly with a hope chest. It was a beautiful Lane chest from the 1940’s. It is to be used by Molly to start collecting goodies for her future home. It was a beautiful gift with a beautiful purpose.

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Inside the hope chest they included Molly’s bag of letters.

When my children were very small my mom came up with the idea of having a letter bag for each of her grandchildren. As the kids drew her pictures or sent her letters through the years, she would collect them in their letter bag. At graduation, they give the bag of letters back to that child to read through and enjoy.

Molly, being the resident letter writer in the family, had a full bag of sent mail to look through and enjoy.

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What a delightful trip down memory lane it was, as we enjoyed her earliest years of artwork and phonetic spelling.

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After we exchanged gifts for all the loved ones we were celebrating, the remainder of the day was spent enjoying the magic of the Homestead with it green vistas, grazing animals, and peace.

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The kids had fun driving around the golf cart that was recently purchased to help G.G. move around the farm,

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And we all enjoyed playing games as a family.

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Life doesn’t allow us the time we’d like to visit family. Often it is months or even years between our visits, but when we are granted the rare gift of an afternoon together, we fill it with a month’s worth of fun!

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Here’s to the stolen moments of life that make life worth living!

9 Decades of Life!

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In my life I have been incredibly blessed to be surrounded by women of character and of influence. These women are responsible for a wonderful and magical childhood, but are also largely responsible for the woman I am today.

At their knees I learned the most important of life lessons.

I learned how to love, how to serve, and how to care for my family.

I learned the importance of creating memories and carving out time for fun.

I learned that laughter is one of the greatest antidotes to hard days and that hard work pays dividends.

I learned that life is a grand adventure, and when it comes to the twists and turns on the road of life, we can either fruitlessly resist or lean into the bends and enjoy the ride.

I learned that there is something to be learned from every experience and every person we encounter in our travels.

I learned that family is everything, and as long as you have that you will always feel wealthy.

One of the greatest influences in my life has been my father’s mother, whom I refer to often in the blog as G.G.

G.G. just recently moved closer when in October she sold her home in Florida to move closer to my parents in Wooster, Ohio. Although the craziness of life has kept us from visiting as often as we’d like, we are so grateful to have her close by and a regular fixture at all our family gatherings at the Homestead.

This month was a big one for G.G. as she celebrated her 90th trip around the sun. As vibrant and fun as ever, I can only hope to live my life as well as she has.

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In honor of her big day, plans were in the works months prior to plan a celebration worthy of the birthday girl. My parents, along with my Dad’s three siblings and their spouses, made plans to celebrate this milestone birthday in style.

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The plan was for everyone (Andy/Jane, Denise/Jack, Jill/Paul, Marty/Fran, and my sister Kelly) to come into town for a week of reunion fun with the planned activities coming to a peak on Thursday night with a celebratory birthday dinner at the Olde Jaol Restaurant.

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Prior to the birthday party I was recruited to take on the task of creating a scrapbook for the birthday girl. Months prior to the event I began the project by sending out letters to friends and family requesting birthday letters for grandma. The letters came rolling in and I had a blast reading the memories recorded by all those who love her and whose lives have been touched by hers.

My own sweet memories of her loving traditions that helped mold for me a magical childhood were echoed in the letters from others. I found as I compiled the scrapbook, my love, admiration, and appreciation for my grandmother grew even more, and it was a joyful project to undertake.

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Last Thursday was the big day.

Following a shortened day at work, Toby arrived home with enough time to change before we made the 2.5 hour drive to Wooster, Ohio. There we joined family for G.G.’s 90th birthday dinner at Olde Jaol Resturant.

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This historic gem, located in downtown Wooster, was a perfect place to have such a special birthday celebration. The restaurant, converted from the old city jail, offered a charming atmosphere to compliment a delicious meal…probably the best food I have ever eaten!

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There we were joined by my parents, out-of-town family,

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And of course the birthday girl, who thanks to gifts from Jane and Andy’s puppies, was decked out for the occasion in “90th birthday” bling.

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That evening we enjoyed an amazing meal and even more amazing company as we gathered together to celebrate the life of a woman whose life has touched so many for the better.

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Gifts were given with loving consideration and each gift was an expression of love.

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Then we presented G.G. with the gift from the entire family…the compilation of love letters from friends and family near and far. As she read through the memories that had been penned, it was a confirmation of the impact one soul can have on the world.

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So often we move through this life doing the best we can, wondering if our feeble attempts are making any difference at all. It is easy to become focused on our failures or the struggles that dot our existance, and we lose sight of the big picture and the trail of blessings we leave in our wake…

Blessings that make this world a brighter and better place because we are in it.

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The scrapbook of letters served as a testament to the impact one person can have.

What a life G.G. has led these last 90 years!

How blessed we all are to be a part of that life!

 

A Valentine’s Day at Animal Kingdom

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On Thursday we returned to Animal Kingdom for our second (and last) day in the park. In honor of Valentine’s Day, Toby and the kids woke to some gifts of love waiting for them in the dining room.

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I was thrilled to be spending Valentine’s Day with the love of my life at my favorite Disney park!

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The combination of shady pathways, smaller crowds, and animals everywhere you look, makes this park feel more like a haven than a theme park.

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The theming in this park also adds to the feeling of being transported to another continent as visitors move from Pandora to Africa and then on to Asia. Each area offers rides, shows and experiences that tie into that environment, and while we revisited the Pandora-The World of Avatar to re-ride our new, favorite Disney World ride: Avatar Flight of passage (It is AMAZING!!), and to visit Windtraders so that Rusty could use the remainder of his Christmas money to adopt a banshee,

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Most of our day was spent enjoying the rest of Animal Kingdom.

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After riding Avatar Flight of Passage, our second ride of the day was Expedition Everest. This roller coaster is a family favorite!

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Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain

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“Wander into a Tibetan village at the base of Mount Everest and board a train to the “top of the world.” Beware: Some say a legendary snow monster—the Yeti—lives deep in the mountain.

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After a steep ascent, hold on tight as your train picks up speed and races into the darkness. Without warning, a broken and twisted track appears in front of you.

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 Brace yourself as you plummet backward into total darkness. Inside the cavern, the mythical tale comes true as you see the shadow of a massive, growling beast!

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Race to escape the cursed mountain—before the Yeti claims another expedition!”

From there we headed over to Kilimanjaro Safaris.

Kilimanjaro Safaris

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“Set off in an open-air vehicle for a guided tour of an African savanna—and spot live animals roaming free.

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Explore the Harambe Wildlife Reserve, home to 34 species living in 110 acres of picturesque open plains, shady forest landscapes and rocky wetlands. Your rugged safari vehicle is driven by an expert guide, who helps point out animals and shares fascinating wildlife facts during this extraordinary 18-minute expedition.

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Spot a shy hippopotamus nestled in a still pond.

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Behold a regal lion sunbathing on a rocky perch.

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Drive past a gentle giraffe grazing on the tall trees.

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Other amazing animals you may encounter include rhinos, cheetahs, crocodiles, elephants, hyenas and zebras—and so many more!

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Since animals have minds of their own, every expedition is a unique and unforgettable experience. Be sure to keep your eyes open and have a camera ready—you never know what you’ll see on a Kilimanjaro Safaris outing.”

This experience was a hit with all my animal lovers. Brandon requested we do it again after dark, wanting to experience the ride at night and see the animals in a “whole new light.”

Previously off limits to visitors after sundown, this unforgettable journey through the reserve allowed us to witness rarely seen nocturnal animal behaviors. Many of the animals were settled in for the night, and there wasn’t a whole lot of action until we drove up to the lion pride where we got to experience the lions roaring and calling out to each other. It was an astounding experience that made the night time trek well worth the otherwise anticlimactic ride!

In addition to riding and re-riding our favorite rides, we also made time to enjoy some of the shows. We began the day by watching:

UP! A Great Bird Adventure

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“Join Russell and his furry friend Dug on a flap-happy adventure sure to send spirits soaring.

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Led by a senior Wilderness Explorer, this unique birding experience features a close-up look at various bird species from around the globe—including the marabou stork, which boasts a magnificent 10-foot wingspan.

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Prepare for breathtaking fun with these free-flying fowl… along with a few other surprises!”

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Tyler is our resident bird lover, having once lived in a foster home with a parrot named, Mango. He loved this Animal Kingdom show that was created completely around nature’s feathered friends.

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My personal favorite show at Animal Kingdom, and perhaps all the Disney parks, is Finding Nemo- The Musical. We made sure to fit in a viewing of this incredible production.

Finding Nemo- The Musical

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“Extraordinary live musical performances, delightful puppets, vibrant sets and wondrous underwater special effects immerse you in Nemo’s fin-tastic world. Join the overprotective clownfish Marlin and his forgetful friend Dory as they search for his son, Nemo.

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The multiple Academy Award-winning songwriting team behind Frozen and Coco, Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, created 14 original songs just for this show—the first time a non-musical Disney animated feature has been transformed into an original musical production.

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Take your fins and family and dive right into this “big blue world”!”

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Halfway through the day we took a break to enjoy some lunch at our favorite counter service restaurant at Disney World: Flame Tree BBQ. This place is nothing short of amazing! Here we feasted on delicious, fall-off-the-bone ribs, baked beans, BBQ pork sandwiches, and turkey legs.

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It was a perfect mid-day break. Everyone filled their bellies and enjoyed sitting for a half an hour under the shade of the trees while watching the antics of the water fowl that run amok, stealing food from unexpecting visitors.

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After lunch, we made our way over to Dinoland U.S.A. to ride some of the rides in that area of the park.

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Along the way we stumbled across some fine feathered friends of a different variety. In this area of the park we found Donald Duck and his friends.

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The older kids requested photos and autographs from some of the characters we were passing, so we stopped to say hello.

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When we went up to say hello to Donald, he noticed our celebration pin.

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With great excitement he clapped and hugged us and insisted we take a family photo with the whole crew.

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For the last two weeks we have walked around the park wearing our celebration pins announcing our upcoming adoption. It has been neat to see how many people have been touched by adoption, as fellow visitors and cast members stop us to congratulate us and share their adoption stories. One woman stopped us while we waited behind her in line for a ride to ask about our pin and then insisted on giving Brandon a hug when she found out he was being adopted, having been a teenager adoptee. Other cast members, from custodial staff to cast member trainers, stopped to share their stories of being an adoptive parent or an adopted child.

For our snack we decided to go classic with a Mickey ice cream bar.

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We ate our treats while enjoying a performance in the streets of Harambe, Africa.

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That night we enjoyed two special night time shows at Animal Kingdom:

Tree of Life Awakenings- A Mesmerizing Nighttime Experience

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“Flickering fireflies magically appear and stir to life the animal spirits in the tree’s towering trunk—bringing to light a dazzling visual display swarming with color and animated imagery.

Gaze upon a young doe embarking upon a thrilling journey. Behold love blossoming between a pair of hummingbirds. Spy a sly fox spreading gifts of love among the denizens of a wintry forest.

A feast for the eyes, each revelation celebrates the eternal balance and harmony that exists in all living things, big or small, and is sure to inspire and delight your whole family tree.”

And:

Rivers of Light

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“Get swept away in a timeless show that celebrates the beauty of all living things. With a brilliant fusion of water, sound and light, it’s quite unlike anything you’ve experienced before!

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As sunlight fades and the stars begin their twinkle, remember that we are all bound together by earth and spirit—past, present and future.

Listen as the Discovery River responds to the whispers of the world, cradling creatures with a symphony that swells with wild murmurs and shimmering secrets of the universe.

So begins a new light—a vibrant awakening of flitting fireflies leading to a ceremonious procession across the water.

Before your eyes, clusters of lantern light shift and shape into stunning animal spirit forms—the Tiger, Turtle, Elephant and Owl. Spellbound, you’re transported across Asian jungles and tropical oceans to African savannahs and North American mountains.

This magnetic display culminates in a triumphant blend of song, light, color and earthly elements—a grand finale so divine that you can’t help but feel a sense of peace and oneness with nature.”

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Our amazing Valentine’s Day came to a close with a trip to the top of Everest with my true love (and a few spares.)

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We loved our time in Animal Kingdom, and were sad to go, but we weren’t done with our Disney adventure quite yet.

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Next stop: Epcot!

Hanging Out in Andy’s Backyard

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Day 2 of our Disney adventure was spent at Hollywood Studios. The excitement was palpable, as we prepared for the day, because we were off to play in Andy’s backyard!!

 Toy Story Land is the latest addition to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and is stirring up quite the buzz, (Pun intended) and we couldn’t wait to check it out!

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We were not disappointed.

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From the moment we walked in, we realized this land is like no other! It felt a little like the immersion we experienced when we entered Cars Land on our visit to Disneyland. You literally feel as though you have entered the Toy Story movie!

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It’s a bright, cheery, fun and a fantastic representation of what it would be like to be one of Andy’s Toys.

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The goal in the design of Toy Story Land is to make those who visit feel as if they are a size of a toy, in Andy’s back yard. As we took a look around, we loved all the special touches and attention to detail.

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 It was fun just walking around this land to see all the extras.

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Disney didn’t leave anything out!

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In addition to simply strolling around Andy’s backyard and taking in all the magical touches, we also enjoyed riding the three rides found in Toy Story Land:

Alien Swirling Saucers

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“The cutest extraterrestrials in the galaxy have landed, and they’re taking you for a ride. Power up the saucers for an interstellar romp through space, while futuristic tunes set the mood.”

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This ride was a fun ride, that was less nausea inducing than say the tea cups in the Magic Kingdom. It reminded me of the classic ride that you see at pop up carnivals called the scrambler. The path that the cars make is a large looping one rather than a tight spinning motion.

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This fan favorite ride has gotten a face lift in the form of a new entrance to the ride within Toy Story Land and a 3rd track has been added to challenge veteran riders and…to make the line move more quickly. Zip through a virtual gallery of exciting carnival games based on the hit animated film series.

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Step inside Andy’s room and wind your way through a toy treasure chest of classic playthings. Pass a Candyland game box, Viewmaster discs, crayon drawings and a Scrabble board before picking up a pair of special 3D glasses for the fun to come.

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Climb aboard an early 20th-century-inspired Carnival Ride Tram and grab your spring-action shooter. With 3D glasses on, glide into the Toy Story Midway Games Play Set and take aim at stationary and moving 3D objects in a variety of fast-paced games.

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Slinky Dog Dash

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Andy’s assembled his Mega Coaster Play Kit—and Slinky Dog is gonna take you on a wild, toy-filled adventure.

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“Get a glimpse of everything Toy Story Land has to offer as you stretch Slinky Dog’s coils to the limit across Andy’s backyard! Come along for a roller-coaster-style ride as he bends and twists and stretches his way all throughout this new land.”

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This new roller coaster has made it firmly to the top of my favorite Disney ride list. Slinky Dog Dash is the perfect combo of tameness that you would expect for kids and thrills for the coaster lovers.

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For lunch we ate at Woody’s Lunch Box!

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The charming, nostalgic details we loved through this land continue in this quick service eatery.

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Disney couldn’t have come up with a better idea for a restaurant located in Andy’s backyard. It’s as if Andy just dropped his lunchbox on his way home from school to play.

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The details don’t stop at the restaurant, of course.

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The best part about Toy Story Land is that everywhere you look, every glance you take, you will notice some nod to the Toy Story movies, your childhood memories, or both.

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Take this area (above) within Woody’s Lunch Box seating area. You spy the Green Army Men looking out over the area keeping watch.

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For lunch some enjoyed the BBQ Brisket Melt – Sliced Smoked Brisket, Pickles and tangy BBQ Sauce between melted Cheddar and Monterey Jack Cheeses on Grilled Sourdough, while others chose the “Totchos” – Potato Barrels coated with Beef and Bean Chili, Shredded Cheese and signature Queso with Tomatoes and Corn Chips finished with Sour Cream and a sprinkle of Green Onions.

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The food was amazing! The only challenge at this eatery was the limited amount of tables. We lucked out! Be sure to take a close look at the some of the chairs in this area. They are made to look like a babybel cheese cut in half.

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We eventually pulled ourselves away from Andy’s backyard to enjoy the rest of the fun at Hollywood Studios (more on that in a future post) but then returned in the evening to experience Andy’s backyard at night.

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All of the hanging strings of Christmas bulbs turn on at night, illuminating Andy’s backyard.

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Having visiting Toy Story Land in both the day and the night time, there is something truly magical about seeing it in the evening.

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Whether visited in the day or enjoyed at night, Toy Story Land is AMAZING!

Feeling Blessed!

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“Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to meeeeeee. Happy birthday to me!”

My birthday morning began with a self-serenade.

The older kids were out of the house on the morning of my birthday and Ozzie was at work with Toby. My family kindly let me sleep in…a rare and cherished luxury…so the responsibility to wake me with traditional birthday cupcake a little later in the morning, fell on Brandon and Tyler.

When Tyler found out I was turning 41, he insisted on trying his hardest to fit 41 candles on my slice of birthday cake.

I awoke to this fire hazard coming at my face. Both had taken the responsibility to awaken mom with cake and birthday wishes quite seriously, that was until they realized that the task of singing the birthday song fell to them since everyone else was out of the house.

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I lay there with the flaming ball of flames resting on my chest, while a lively debate took place at the foot of my bed as to whose responsibility the song part of the birthday tradition fell to. As the layer of melted wax grew thicker on the surface of my cake the boys finally got on the same page and unanimously agreed I should be the one to sing the birthday song…

And eager to blow out the candles before the flames reached the icing, I concurred.

Once the traditional birthday wake-up was done, the boys busied themselves playing with gifts they received for Christmas, while I enjoyed a lazy day at home. It was wonderful! It is a rare treat to have an entire day open and free, with nothing on the calendar and no place I had to be. When the older kids got home we all enjoyed a PJ and movie day in the living room. It was a wonderful way to spend my birthday.

When Toby and Ozzie arrived home we all got dressed for the birthday surprise Toby planned,

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But first I was asked to take a seat so I could open my gifts. I was spoiled rotten by my family and received gifts that were thoughtful and given with love.

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Then we headed out to celebrate my birthday as a family. Toby planned an evening filled with all of my favorite things. We began our night of birthday fun with dinner at Panda Express and then we introduced Brandon to the awesome world of escape rooms!

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Toby booked an escape room experience for the family at an escape room on McKnight Road that is advertised as “the most difficult escape room in Pittsburgh.” It gave us a run for the money and was the first escape room we weren’t able to solve in the 60 minute window. We came within one final puzzle of escaping the room before the timer rang. Despite not escaping in the allotted time, we had an awesome time! I LOVE the mind-bending challenge that an escape rooms experience offers, and they are always more fun when we can work together as a family, tapping into each person’s individual strengths to try to achieve success as a family.

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It was a perfect birthday and a perfect way to celebrate the end of a wonderful 40th year. As I begin my 41st trip around the Sun I can’t help but feel immensely grateful for the beautiful life my Heavenly Father has blessed me with, and these special people I get to travel with.

Here’s to year 41!