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Student helps organize tree-lighting event at Scott Park

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Abigail Augustyniak-Romano

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, 8:50 p.m.
 

People hear carols in a department store before Thanksgiving and want to talk about the Christmas season starting earlier and earlier.

But they haven't seen the inside of Abigail Augustinyak-Romano's Scott Township home.

Covered in crafts, ornaments, hot chocolate tins, holiday cookies and marshmallows, the 17-year-old's abode for weeks has been ground zero for preparing the community's annual tree-lighting celebration, slated for 6:30 tonight at the Scott Park amphitheater.

“It has consumed everything,” Augustinyak-Romano said. “It's not necessarily a bad thing, but I feel less like I'm supplying a small tree-lighting celebration than supplying everything for an entire army.”

It's one way to earn a diploma.

The Chartiers Valley senior gained permission from the township in early September to organize this year's event for her graduation project. With the guidance of township employees Peggy Ballo and Kathy Gazda, she arranged almost every aspect of the celebration, from collecting donations and setting up entertainment to making sure Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive on time.

“Christmas and all around that time is my absolute favorite time of the year,” she said. “And I always go to the tree-lighting celebration, so I'm pretty familiar with what goes on.”

Familiar, too, with piecing together a good party.

Augustinyak-Romano earned her stripes as a planner by helping organize school dances and spaghetti dinners at her church. But this event — with 250 people expected, and maybe half of those children — provides a new challenge.

“There is a ton of pressure. It's been very, very stressful,” she said. “I just went to a couple day-care centers, and I'd sit in the classroom and see what the kids like. Most of them like coloring, so we're going to do some coloring in the crafts area.”

Treat bags, offering a good deal more than the standard peppermint candy cane, will be distributed, as well. For older attendees, carolers and refreshments will be on hand.

And in keeping with the season's spirit, people also are encouraged to bring a canned food item to donate to the Pittsburgh Food Bank.

It wasn't easy getting to this night. Spending at least three hours a day laboring to create a celebration her community could be proud of — not to mention keeping up with school work — Augustinyak-Romano ran into some speed bumps along the way.

“Some of the biggest hurdles were businesses telling me they'd donate things, and this is a solely donation event, so if they didn't follow through I'd have to find another route to take,” she said.

The ups and downs of this ­­­successful saga are certainly helping Augustinyak-Romano graduate in the spring. But the experience may continue to serve her in the years to come, as she leans toward studying social sciences in college with a potential career in public service ahead.

“One of the big things I learned was how to approach people in a way that's inviting and welcoming and dealing with the public,” she said.

Dan Stefano is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at dstefano@tribweb.com or 412-388-5816.

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