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For the Coyle family, Festival of Trees has new meaning

Kennedy Krieger Institute's annual Festival of Trees fundraiser was a family tradition for Mary Lou and John Coyle long before the birth of their son, John III, nine years ago.

It began when John Coyle's parents' bakery, Herman's Bakery, was a vendor at earlier Festival of Trees events.

"They're bakers and we'd make gingerbread houses every year," Mary Lou Coyle said.

The festival and the bakery business changed over the years, but Mary Lou and John continued to make a gingerbread house each year.

"It took on a different meaning when Johnny started getting treatment [at Kennedy Krieger], Mary Lou Coyle said.

From the time he was an infant, Johnny, who was born with VATER syndrome, received occupational therapy at Kennedy Krieger to improve his motor skills. VATER syndrome is described as the nonrandom co-occurrence of birth defects that can affect the vetebrae, rectum, heart, esophagus, kidneys and limbs.

Johnny, 9, recently completed his occupational therapy program, and might return later this year for a different one. But his family has been hard at work creating a new tradition for the familiar Festival of Trees.

The Coyles, who live in Homeland and have their photography business, Coyle Studios, in Towson, are decorating a 7-foot tall Christmas tree with ornaments crafted from photos of Baltimore. The tree, titled "Little Town of Baltimore," has been a "labor of love," Mary Lou Coyle said.

"I cannot begin to tell you, it's so much work," she said. "Taking (pictures), processing, printing, framing. We're artists. We're going to analyze it anyway, but it's fun. It's fun to see what we can come up with."

And the gingerbread house tradition continues. Late last week, Johnny decorated a gingerbread house at the family bakery. He wasn't the only one.

"What's grown is now all of his cousins do gingerbread houses, too," Mary Lou Coyle said. "It's the enthusiasm for one family member that kind of spreads, so all of his little cousins participate as well."

Most of their extended family joins them at the event, too.

"It kickstarts (the holiday season) and puts everybody in a better mood," she said.

That so much of their family supports the cause is just a bonus for the Coyle family.

The tree, which will be sold at the three-day event, will be just a small piece of the fundraising for the Kennedy Krieger Institute. Mary Lou Coyle said she's seen the benefit of fundraising efforts like the Festival of Trees first-hand during Johnny's initial treatment.

"It was so depressing," she said of the first trips to Kennedy Krieger with her infant son. "There were so many kids they were lined up in hallways. The kids who were getting therapy and were riding specially adapted bikes were riding in the hallways… What Kennedy Krieger is now, the new building we receive treatment in now, it's beautiful, it's bright, it's sunny, it's private.

"That would be the biggest difference. You still had great people doing great things in a not-so-great space that was overcrowded, and now you have a great space."

In addition to the tree and wreath sales, Festival of Trees will also feature more than 100 gift boutiques and performances by the children's band, Milkshake. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 29 and Saturday, Nov. 30 and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 1 in the Cow Palace at the Maryland State Fairgrounds, 2200 York Road in Timonium.

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