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A Hometown Fourth

Great Falls celebration features parades, family fun.

From the dozens of children decked out in red, white and blue for the Baby Parade to the legions of youngsters riding their bikes in the Main Parade, the Great Falls Hometown Fourth of July celebration was all about family fun.

Families paraded down the sidewalk lining the Green at the Village Centre wearing red, white and blue from head to toe, some waving flags, others wearing streamers or fuzzy antennae.

"People like the simplicity of it all," said Janet Servis, co-president of Great Falls Friends, the organization responsible for overseeing the festivities. "It's a nice way for people to see their neighbors. The kids are so precious. They get to ride their bikes in the parade and adults get to drive their antique cars."

Acting as Grand Marshal for the event was Evin Planto, an Army colonel who returned from a nine-month tour of duty in Iraq in March.

Currently stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, where he is training other soldiers for battle in Iraq, Planto is home in Great Falls every two weeks to visit his family.

"We get so much great support from this community, it really means a lot," he said. "That's what it's all about, making sure we can continue to have celebrations like this."

Planto said he led the Pledge of Allegiance at the Great Falls Freedom Memorial prior to the start of the 5K Fun Run/Walk and said a few words, "mostly to the runners who were up at 7 a.m.," about the importance of celebrating the Fourth of July.

"A lot of people will stop to thank me for what I've done," Planto said, wearing his desert fatigues. "It means a lot, not just to me, but for all the soldiers overseas, to know that we have the support of the American people back home. That's why we're there."

At that moment, Robin Melichar, a member of the Great Falls Volunteer Fire Department, came up, introduced herself to Planto and thanked him for his service.

A former member of the Army National Guard, Melichar said she joined the Fire Department nine months after the Sept. 11 attacks, while still in the Army, as a way to keep giving back to her community.

"My guard unit got called up because of 9/11," she said. "It was such a hardship. So many people had to leave their good-paying jobs and leave for a year or two."

The two talked about the camaraderie formed by being a member of the armed services, regardless of which branch, and the bond felt among all those in uniform who serve the community.

"You don't need to wear a uniform to support your home community," Planto said.

"In a way, it's very much the same," Melichar said. "We're still brothers and sisters in arms, it's just in a different capacity. "

Attending the celebration in Great Falls is like "a big family reunion," she said. "It's a good way to come together to celebrate our independence."

For people new to Great Falls, and those who still consider themselves newcomers, the Fourth of July celebration is one of the events that gives the community its small-town feel.

"When I first moved here, I didn't know anyone," said Rita MacDonald, now the community liaison for the Great Falls Newcomers who helped to lead the Baby Parade.

"It's really important to get the generations together for things like this. My mother is 85 years old and visiting us from Ireland, and every time she's here she says what a remarkable place this is. This is a genuinely hometown celebration."

HER FAVORITE ASPECT of the event is "the look of joy in the children's faces," she said. "I love seeing them go around in their little carts."

This was the first year that Deborah Piro had the opportunity to volunteer with the event, selling tickets for the Great Falls Friends food tent.

"Everything here is so nice and so sweet, it's really family oriented," Piro said.

While she and her family are usually out of town for the holiday, this year, when she learned she would be home, she decided to volunteer at the event.

"I think this is great. We're going to Turner Farm later on to watch the fireworks later tonight," she said. "I just wish more families were out here to enjoy this."

Chris Slack, his wife and two daughters, Maya and Jasmine, recently moved to Great Falls from Falls Church and are thrilled with the celebration of patriotism.

"We never really participated in anything Falls Church had, and this is exactly how we heard this would be," Slack said. "We can't wait for the fireworks. Apparently we can see them from our front yard, which is nice because we don't have to worry about the crowds of going into D.C. or fighting the traffic."

For Nikki Clark, the highlight of the day is the Baby Parade.

"I love it. I love seeing the kids all decked out, they're so cute," she said.

This is the third year she's volunteered as a judge during the parade, an increasingly difficult task because the entrants get more and more elaborate every year.

"You'll see people that have nothing on their wagon one year and the next year they have balloons and everything," she giggled. "Parents keep coming up with better and better ideas and the kids always look great."