For many, the holidays are a time to gather and reconnect with family. But for people like Melanie Schickel, whose relatives are spread out around the world, that's not always an option. So instead, she spends the holiday season volunteering with a different kind of family - her community.

For many, the holidays are a time to gather and reconnect with family.

But for people like Melanie Schickel, whose relatives are spread out around the world, that's not always an option. So instead, she spends the holiday season volunteering with a different kind of family - her community.

Schickel, the sales and marketing coordinator for the Gahanna Convention and Visitors Bureau, was born in Louisiana and moved to Alaska as a child. The 26-year-old attended college in Texas and completed an internship in Columbus, where she and her husband Ralph, a native of Germany, decided to settle.

About two months ago, Schickel joined in the planning efforts for Gahanna's 11th-annual holiday extravaganza, the Holiday Lights Festival and Parade, which had already been in the works for 10 months. She's a volunteer with the decorations committee, responsible for decking out Santa's House and the Holiday Storytime Breakfast, where children can eat pancakes with favorite literary characters like Curious George and Max from the Max and Ruby series.

Other festival highlights include a parade with 75 lighted floats, as well as a Holiday Marketplace, live music and a Winter Wonderland lights display at Creekside Park.

Why did you want to get involved volunteering?

When I moved here, I was writing a thesis, interning and planning a wedding. It's hard to find time for [my husband and I] to meet people, which is one reason volunteering is so appealing to me - to network. Even if it's a small task, every volunteer helps. I want people to see how great it is and come back.

I appreciate Gahanna - it's so new, I want to help in any way I can. I saw Holiday Lights as a great way to get involved. I feel like it's a way of furthering yourself, making a bigger impact, helping people who in turn might help you one day.

Tell me more about Gahanna's Holiday Lights festival.

Gahanna is expecting approximately 45,000 people this year. In past years, the attendance has been around 40,000, but it is expected to increase due to the new activities.

We hired an interior designer to redo Santa's House. We decided to give it a whole new look. When you first see it, there's going to be about six different lighted trees and Santa will be hidden behind elves. It's a nice experience for the kids.

It's exciting because it's in this great area. Creekside wasn't open last year, so it'll provide a new backdrop for the parade - this is the nerve center.

It's perfect for both families and young people who want to get into the holiday spirit. There's going to be a lighted parade at nightfall, about 6 p.m. There will be 100 entries - marching bands and floats.

What else will you be promoting at Holiday Lights?

I'm going to be getting the word out about all these hidden gems we have here in Gahanna. There are two different homes to tour and ways to be involved.

I will be dressing in Victorian period costume and talking about the Gahanna Historical Society. Stan Campbell Place, who used to be a makeup artist for Broadway, designed the coat. Plus, it's an excuse to dress up in Victorian clothes - I couldn't pass it up!