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WELCOME BASKETS the talk of FishHawk

Susanne Merz watched neighbors come and go during the 34 years she lived in St. Petersburg. No one stopped to talk.

"People got out of their cars and went into their doors," Merz said.

On a house-hunting trip to FishHawk a year and a half ago, she marveled at the friendly waves that greeted her at every turn. Maybe real estate agents paid by the smile, she joked with her son-in-law.

When she and her husband, Bob, moved in June 2003, a neighbor came over with homemade cookies to welcome them.

She pledged to return the favor. As her subdivision's first resident, Merz wanted to extend the greetings to everyone in the 56-home Paloma Glade community.

Only the grandmother of four doesn't cook.

Instead, she shopped: Holiday-shaped soaps, hand towels and candles for a family moving in around Christmas. An inflatable raft for a house building a pool. Paper towels, cleaners _ even the occasional disposable camera _ fill her baskets brimming with basics for move-in day.

"I always think when you first move in, the basics are important," said Merz, 58, who is eight baskets shy of greeting every neighbor.

"We've gotten as much out of it or more than we've given," she said. "We've learned to meet people."

The Pinellas County school administrator wanted a different atmosphere when the family moved to FishHawk, where her two grown children also bought homes in separate subdivisions.

Daughters Robin McManigal 30, and Melanie Cochrane, 33, were not surprised that their mother would expand a simple welcome idea into an effort that is the talk of FishHawk. When they were children, their mother hosted themed birthday parties with matching invitations and cakes. This year, she insisted the family wear matching reindeer sweaters for a Christmas photo.

The welcome baskets combined her dual passions for "shopping and doing good for others, and doing both at the same time," McManigal said.

The basket for a family arriving around Valentine's Day includes a vanilla-jasmine aromatherapy treatment to help ease the stress of unpacking. A disposable camera and photo-themed basket await another new neighbor.

"You're buying a gift for somebody you don't know, so you're trying to buy something that anyone will like," Merz said. "Seasonal is always good."

Merz proudly notes that each basket has a greater retail value than its $5 to $8 budget.

The thought, however, was enough for next-door neighbor Kathy Dixon, who received a basket with holiday items when her family moved around Christmas.

"It just made us feel very welcome, and made us feel part of the neighborhood," she said.

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