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After thief strikes, neighbors rally to decorate 85-year-old widow's home for Christmas

Natalie Conkel has had a tough time getting in the holiday spirit since her husband died five years ago.

But after an ad for a Christmas light machine caught her eye, the 85-year-old decided it was finally time to make her San Lorenzo, California, home festive again.

Her husband, Ted, had always been the one to hang the holiday trimmings. In 2010, he died from lung disease at 82. So, last month, Conkel hired a “Rent a Husband” service to set up the machine for her.

Just a few days later though, on Nov. 19, Conkel noticed the gadget, which shined Christmas colors on her house, was stolen.

Courtesy of Christine Dowell
Neighbors out front of Natalie Conkel's home in San Lorenzo, California, last month.

She called her next door neighbor, Leslie Lewis, to tell her what happened.

Lewis, 36, immediately posted Conkel's story on the San Lorenzo community Facebook and, within minutes, she heard from dozens of people who wanted to help.

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"From there it just kind of snowballed and we had tons of people dropping off decorations at my home every day leading up to the day we decorated her house," Lewis told TODAY.com.

Courtesy of Leslie Lewis
Natalie Conkel with Leslie Lewis

Lewis contacted Conkel’s son, David, 55, to see if he could take her out to dinner while neighbors secretly decorated her house.

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On Nov. 24, over 50 people showed up to help.

"The majority of the people didn't know Natalie, or me for that matter," Lewis said.

Courtesy of Karen Griego
Community members rallied to decorate Conkel's home as a surprise after a thief stole a holiday light machine from her yard.

Conkel returned from dinner at around 5:30 p.m. to see her house lit up and the choir from Del Rey Elementary School singing Christmas carols out front.

"I was totally in shock," Conkel told TODAY.com. "It's a good thing I'm a strong person and didn't faint."

Conkel's one-story rambler has always been a bright spot in the neighborhood.

Shortly after Natalie and Ted moved in 1952, neighbors started referring to it as "party city," with friends and family congregating there to celebrate special occasions.

Courtesy of Meredith Christensen-Houghtelling
"It's so nice to see people that I don't even know coming together for me, a stranger," Conkel said. Above, her house after the decorations broke up.

Since her four children have grown up, moved out and gone on to have kids of their own, she's not as connected with her newer neighbors.

"It's so nice to see people that I don't even know coming together for me, a stranger," Conkel said. "It was beyond nice and beyond wonderful."

As if the decorations weren't enough, her community also raised $300 to go toward Conkel's electricity bill.

Courtesy of Brianna Rae
Conkel at home after the decorations went up.

"I'm fortunate enough to be able to pay for my electricity myself, so I collected another $200 and donated $500 to the Wounded Warrior Project," Conkel said.

Brianna Rae, a neighbor whose mother-in-law does Natalie's hair every week, said the day was "truly magical."

She was brought to tears when Conkel returned home.

"It was a touching moment for everyone who attended, no matter if they knew her or not," Rae told TODAY.com. "Natalie is a great woman who deserved every bit of appreciation that day."

Conkel's story was first reported by local station KTVU-TV.

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