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Christmas lights serve as beacon of hope for Missouri City family mourning sudden death of teen

Justin Varghese was killed in a car accident in October. Christmas lights in his favorite color are providing a beacon of hope to family, friends who miss him.
Credit: KHOU

MISSOURI CITY, Texas — Katie Palmer continues to brighten the world, even in death. 

Palmer was a 39-year-old middle school science teacher who was killed during a morning walk in April 2020. Her friends said a truck veered off the road and hit the wife and mother of two young children. 

Because Palmer was an organ donor, she was able to help save the lives of seven people. And her personal legacy is even providing a beacon of hope to families in the midst of tragedy.

The Katie Palmer Project was started by Grapevine firefighter Dustin Bortzfield in the months after Palmer’s death. Bortzfield did not know Palmer personally, but was a childhood friend of her husband and was moved to comfort his friend. 

Bortzfield, who hangs Christmas lights as a side job, offered to decorate his friend’s home in December 2020. The project has since expanded to help Houston-area families this year, including the family of Justin Varghese.

Varghese was killed on October 29, 2021 during his drive between school and home. His family only has moments, memories and photos to cling to.

“So it’s still surreal. We still can’t believe it,” said Justin’s older sister Jamie John. “He was taken from us in a tragic way."

CLICK HERE: Nominate a family for the Katie Palmer Project 

Christmas time is huge in Varghese's family. John said every year her family would go around in neighborhoods to look at Christmas lights. 

“We always wanted to do lights on our house. My dad and Justin always planned to do it, but we never got around to it.”

CLICK HERE: Donate to the Katie Palmer Project 

But Mark Garza could. 

“I thought it was a good opportunity for us to get out and do something good for our community,” said Garza who also hangs Christmas lights on houses as a side business. 

He and members of the Sugar Land Professional Firefighters Association spent about an hour hanging lights on the Varghese’s Missouri City family home.

“And it’s more than just Christmas lights,” said Bortzfield. The act is the stringing together of kindness, community and hope.

The red and white lights on Varghese's family home are a nod to Varghese’s love of Spiderman. The peaks glow in his favorite color.

“He’s the star of our house,” said John. “It’s in your face. Just like Justin’s smile was.”

CLICK HERE: Become a Katie Palmer Project Christmas Light Contractor 

A lighthouse to guide the Varghese family through their grief. 

“We couldn’t do it with Justin. He didn’t get to set it up for my dad, but now in the darkness, we get to see Justin’s light. It just, it makes us feel like he’s here," said John. 

One of ten Texas homes illuminated this year by Katie Palmer’s legacy. 

“I want to spread this across the state,” said Bortzfield of his hope for the project, which provides a north star for families to cling to as they navigate the holidays without their loved ones.

“Gives us strength to be able to take future steps,” said John, because where there is light, there is hope.

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