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Firefighter's family given Florida Christmas

The widow and children of a man lost in the Sept. 11 attacks are treated to a special holiday by an array of eager donors.

By THERESA BLACKWELL
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 29, 2001


SAFETY HARBOR -- A New York firefighter's family adopted by the community of Safety Harbor has found warm Florida hospitality, despite the chilly temperatures.

Lenny Ragaglia, a firefighter from Engine 54 in Manhattan, died Sept. 11 and left behind a wife, Donna, and sons Lenny Jr., 10, and Anthony, 7, of Staten Island.

Two Safety Harbor Middle School teachers led the effort that brought the Ragaglia family to Florida this week. The family enjoyed the Safety Harbor Resort & Spa, Disney World, Busch Gardens and other area attractions for free.

They had such a good time, they're extending their stay.

"In 10 years of Christmases with my children, I've never had such a good Christmas," Donna Ragaglia told one of the organizers while having Christmas dinner with her family at Cinderella's Castle at Disney World.

Anthony said that Santa visited the family's room at Disney World. "And we've got presents at home, too, and we weren't even there!" said Anthony.

Safety Harbor Middle School math teacher Jeannie Gagliardo and computer teacher and Safety Harbor Mayor Pam Corbino organized and raised money for the trip.

The Ragaglias arrived on Sunday night and spent the night as guests of the Safety Harbor Resort & Spa. The next day, the Ragaglias were taken to their room at Disney World's Coronado Springs Resort and given passes to the parks and Disney dollars from Safety Harbor residents for buying souvenirs.

Corbino said Santa had many helpers in bringing Christmas to the family so far from home. Alison Kennedy, an assistant principal at Safety Harbor Middle School, Evelyn van Bonno of the GFWC Clearwater Junior Woman's Club, the GFWC Juniorettes and others helped bring toys and a Christmas tree to Orlando.

On Wednesday night, they returned to a complimentary stay at the Safety Harbor Resort & Spa in a deluxe room, the spa's best room. Lenny Jr. said they found another surprise in their rooms -- fishing rods. "I could see them sticking out of the bed," he said.

On Thursday, they went to Busch Gardens. They watched the lions eating a meal, and they fed the giraffes.

Then Friday, Richard Brock, the Safety Harbor fire marshal, and John Duffy of Re/Max Realtec Group took the boys to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, for a trip on Captain Memo's Pirate Cruise and to the beach. Donna had a day of free treatments at the spa and then the family watched the sunset at Clearwater Beach over a complimentary dinner from Julie's Seafood and Sunsets restaurant.

The Ragaglias had so much fun at Disney World that they plan to extend their trip past today and return to Orlando for a few more days.

Corbino said a $100 donation from Safety Harbor VFW Post 10093 and another from the post's ladies auxiliary helped them reach their goal of $2,700, enough to take care of expenses.

"Once we started this, it was just heart-warming to see how many people called and donated money and their time to make this happen," Corbino said. "It makes us feel so good that we could bring one family to Florida and help them celebrate the holiday in a special way."

Gagliardo has already invited the family to visit her in the spring, when the weather will be warmer.

And Gagliardo's idea is spreading to other communities. She said Donna Ragaglia helped Oldsmar firefighters find a family to adopt.

Oldsmar's Engine 54 is adopting another family from Engine 54 in Manhattan.

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