By Cheryl Conway
Neighborhood streets are looking much brighter these days as residents are decking out their homes with holiday lights getting ready for the winter celebrations.
There is one center-hall colonial at 19 Bell Drive in Morris Twp. that goes all out every year with a light show that will bring a smile, to not only those who stop by to see the massive decoration display, but to the charity benefiting from the donations left by observers. Homeowner Wendy Bongo, aka ‘The Christmas Lady,’ spends weeks setting up thousands of lights with various themes throughout her half-acre property.
Bongo invites visitors to tour her property and then opt to leave a donation for charity. This year, Bongo plans to allocate all proceeds to the Valerie Fund, a non-profit organization that supports health care of children with cancer and blood disorders.
Adorning her property every year right after Thanksgiving is a tradition Bongo has come to love, and one that sightseers travel both near and far to witness.
“I love doing it,” says Bongo. “Everybody knows me as the Christmas lady. They come every year; they want to see it. I have to keep up what I’ve done in the past; I can’t back down now. I have people come out there saying ‘when are you starting?’
“For me, I love seeing how festive it is,” continues Bongo. “I love giving the people joy, love seeing them light up. I’m a big kid fan. When people come and they walk away feeling so good, they get such happiness from seeing these lights, that’s why I do it every year.”
Living in her house for the past 20 years, Bongo has set up her light show for the past 10 years. She allocated all proceeds to the Make-a-Wish Foundation for three years to help children with disabilities, but last year switched to the Valerie Fund after learning that her good friend’s daughter, Heather, had been diagnosed with brain cancer.
The Bongos donate to the charity every year as well by matching whatever proceeds they receive from visitors to their light show, she explains.
“We roughly make $100; then we double it,” says Bongo. Last year, however, they collected $500, so they doubled it, donating $1,000 to support children with brain cancer.
“Heather is cancer free,” says Bongo, but she wants to continue supporting the Valerie Fund for now. “It’s a great program. The money we give will be for another child with brain cancer. This year, I’d like to get higher. I always want to take the next step and continue climbing.”
Starting the weekend of Thanksgiving, Bongo gets busy. Ryan, her 17-year old son “is my deloader; he helps me carry out everything from the attic.” Emily, her nine year old daughter, “she’s my little elf; she says I need to do this until she goes to college.”
Then she and her gardener, Angel Garcia, set up the decorations, “all different themes; that’s what I’m known for,” she says. Display themes include a winter wonderland; carnival with roller coaster and bumper cars; a pond with seals and ducks; dog theme.
“Every section of the lawn is covered in the front,” she says. “Everything is well thought out. I use ribbons and lights. There’s a path we light up that people actually walk my property” and take pictures. She keeps the path lighted to prevent kids from wandering through her property; with “so many extension cords and so many wires, I don’t want anyone to trip and get hurt.”
At the end of the path, is a bucket for anyone wishing to make a donation.
Bongo usually finishes decorating two to three weeks later, depending on the weather.
“It takes a lot of time to construct,” says Bongo. “We decorate as we’re going. I’m out there with my hats and scarves; my feet are cold. It’s fun; I enjoy doing it.”
Bongo estimates more than 10,000 lights, with 15 rolls of LED lights to save energy, multi-colors and white. Along with the lights are ‘a lot of pieces of things, penguins, seals, different themes.”
Bongo says “I must have over 300 extension cords. The roof alone has 15 strands of lights.”
Although supportive of her efforts, Bongo says “My husband thinks I’m crazy,” especially when they get their $1,000 electric bill in December. “We’ve updated our electric box.”
To save some money, Bongo catches the year-end sales on decorations. “We replace stuff each year.”
This year, Bongo has added the Toyland theme to her display with characters from Rudolph, Toy Train and Airplane.
Once the display is finished, the lights go on at 5 p.m. and stay on until 11 p.m., when the town’s ordinance kicks in, she says. “When it’s all done, I love coming down my hill.”
Bongo usually takes down the display right after New Years on Jan. 2 but “if I see a blizzard, I will bring it in so it doesn’t get stuck out there.”
In 2012, Bongo won the Morris County Best Light Show. That year, senior citizens arrived on a bus and the Minutemen even came by, she says.
During Halloween, Bongo also decorates her property starting from Oct. 1, with a graveyard with “things that pop up, things that move,” and a neighborhood block party. They call her ‘Wendy Witch’ as she dresses up as a witch every year, but her efforts for Halloween is simply festive rather than charity.
This time of year, “I just feel like giving. I don’t think of Halloween as that. “It’s the light, the hope, the New Year- it’s the season of giving.”