From left, Brianne Sembar, Taylor Denton, Louise Frank, Lori Allen, Jeff Allen and Savannah Allen meet for the first time at the “Joshua Tree,” Federal Way’s community Christmas tree, on Dec. 21. Olivia Sullivan/the Mirror

From left, Brianne Sembar, Taylor Denton, Louise Frank, Lori Allen, Jeff Allen and Savannah Allen meet for the first time at the “Joshua Tree,” Federal Way’s community Christmas tree, on Dec. 21. Olivia Sullivan/the Mirror

Holiday tradition brings two families together

Here’s the story behind the Christmas tree on the Weyerhaeuser campus.

Decorated in ornaments and tinsel, the little community Christmas tree in Federal Way is more like a Tree of Life.

Planted along South 336th Street near Weyerhaeuser Way South, it is both a literal and metaphorical display of the Christmas spirit.

In 2020, the Allen family — Federal Way residents Lori, Jeff and Savannah — shared their annual tradition of dressing Federal Way’s little holiday tree, a secret kept from most of the community. Neighbors and community members have voiced their love for the tree, leaving notes of gratitude or memorial trinkets for family members who have passed.

Glittery accessories have decked the tree each December since the Allens moved to Federal Way in the early 2000s.

The family started their festive routine around 2013 after noticing it was nearing Christmas and the tree sat bare of any decorations. The question remained: Who started the tradition that the Allens continued?

Tree decorating origins

Louise Frank’s only two children, Joshua and Leah, were diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia (FA) early in their childhoods. Friedreich’s ataxia is a rare, degenerative disease with no cure that affects the spinal cord, nervous system and cerebellum structure of the brain. The disease worsens over time and often leads to weakened muscles, heart issues, vision and hearing loss and other physical impairments.

Frank said she followed the seven words her dad told her upon their diagnosis: “Watch them live, don’t watch them die.” In those words, she said, she found her purpose.

“I know they were not a mistake or broken, and they had a lot to bring to the universe,” said Frank, an Auburn resident. “Their job, everyone’s job, is to find their purpose and make it happen. We benefited from that attitude, and I drew to appreciate who they were.”

By middle school, Frank said both Leah and Joshua used wheelchairs and could no longer feed or dress themselves. Joshua lost his vision around age 17 and Leah’s vision began to decline in her early 20s. The life expectancy for someone diagnosed with FA is about 25-30 years.

Joshua was an extroverted, strong Christian who loved music. He enjoyed volunteering at the local elementary school and spending time with his friends. He was well-loved.

Leah was more of an introvert and “her legacy was compassion,” Frank said. She loved serving the less fortunate in any way she could. She also enjoyed volunteering and traveling anywhere warm and sunny.

As the disease progressed for both of her children, the challenges were endless, she said.

“I was grieving and mourning with each step of progression, but looking for the gifts in it,” Frank said. “I didn’t want them to live their lives in despair.”

On Feb. 1, 2009, Joshua passed away at age 23. That year, Leah, her caregiver Brianne Sembar and a group of friends decided to honor Joshua, who loved Christmas and being part of the community, by decorating a small tree near Weyerhaeuser Way.

The lone tree in Federal Way was symbolic of Joshua’s journey, his strength, courage and dignity. There, Leah and Brianne decided, would be the place of his tribute. They continued to decorate their “Joshua tree” each year to keep his memory alive.

On Dec. 21, 2012, Leah died from complications of the disease at age 25. No ornaments, tinsel or decorations donned the tree the following year — the same year the Allen family took notice of the bare-branched, but beloved tree.

And thus, the Allen family unknowingly took on a tradition that meant far more than holiday cheer.

When Frank saw the 2020 story of how the tradition continued, she said her tears were flowing.

“I was moved that the community had noticed,” she said. “People continued the tradition even if they didn’t understand why.”

On Dec. 21 this year, Louise Frank and the Allen family met for the first time at the Christmas tree. The day also happened to be the nine-year anniversary of Leah’s death.

In the winter chill, warm hugs and stories were exchanged as passing cars honked in support.

The Allens shared stories of how their first years decorating were done in the middle of the night, fearful that security or police would shut down their spark of holiday spirit. Brianne Sembar said the first year she and Leah decorated the tree, they did the exact same routine.

“We’re a part of something real and authentic,” said Lori Allen. Her daughter Savannah said the story sounds like a Hallmark movie.

Louise Frank said she’s blessed to know her kids’ legacy lives on through the care of the community.

“I just feel like this community,” she said. “One little thing we do, we have no idea how it’s going to impact an entire community.”

Garland, beads and bells of silver, gold, red and green hang on this year’s tree, but they weren’t placed by either the Allens or Louise Frank, marking the beginning of a new merry mystery.

New book

Louise Frank is the founder and president of Joy Thru Tears foundation, which aims to help people coping with loss, grief and trauma by providing support, resources, inspiration and hope. Frank’s upcoming book about navigating the deaths of her two children, “The Gift of Great Sorrow: A Journey Thru Pain to Purpose,” is set to publish in January 2022. For more information about the nonprofit and Louise’s book, visit joythrutears.foundation.


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