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Mission Viejo Family Has Special Visitor That Tops Them All


MISSION VIEJO — Diana Poulos usually needs a small ladder to place the small angel on top of the family Christmas tree.

Not this year.

"We've got Gavin," she said.

At 6 feet 10, Gavin Vanderputten barely needs to stretch to see the top of the tree. In fact, he can nearly stare the angel eye-to-eye on its seven-foot perch.

Vanderputten, an exchange student from Perth, Australia, has been staying with the Poulos family--Diane, husband George and son Brett--since September. This is Vanderputten's first Christmas away from home.

It's also one of his busiest.

Vanderputten came to the United States for several reasons--to study a different culture, meet new friends and, first and foremost, land a basketball scholarship to a U.S. university.

So far, Vanderputten, a senior center at Trabuco Hills High School, has adapted well to the style of play in Southern California, averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds while shooting nearly 60% from the field.

As for his hopes for a college scholarship, Vanderputten is being wooed by schools such as UCLA, Arizona, DePaul, Oregon, Oregon State, Arizona State, Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine. He's a solid B-plus student.

But college recruiting isn't the only new experience for Vanderputten. Caught up in his whirlwind of new friends, a new school and new challenges are the American customs and holidays.

In November, Vanderputten enjoyed his first Thanksgiving dinner.

His biggest surprise this Christmas?

"The decorations," Vanderputten said. "All we used to do in Australia was decorate a tree. But that was just the beginning here."

Vanderputten, George and Brett braved a howling wind one night to hang the Christmas lights on the Poulos' steeply slanted roof.

Diana buys her sons--Brett, the Mustangs' junior point guard, and Chad, a junior psychology major at UC San Diego--a Christmas ornament each year. Each Poulos got a kangaroo this time, and Gavin received a Christmas tree with a Koala bear hanging in it.

The decorations don't stop there. There are Christmas place mats, napkins, candles, and besides the large living room tree, there's a smaller version in the family room.

"We have a lot of decorations," Vanderputten said.

Christmas falls in the heart of the Australian schools' two-month summer break. The weather is usually a little warmer in Australia right now, but Vanderputten isn't exactly expecting a White Christmas to blanket Mission Viejo anytime soon.

"The weather has been pretty nice here," he said. "So it hasn't been much of a change."

Vanderputten pauses when asked if his family celebrates a traditional Australian Christmas.

"Well," he said. "I wouldn't call my family traditional."

Vanderputten's father, Rudi, a police sergeant, has nine brothers and sisters. His mother, Angie, has eight siblings. His brother, Simon, an engineer, and Cheryl, a science teacher, also come home for Christmas.

"It's a big Catholic family," Vanderputten said.

How many nieces and nephews?

"Lost count," Vanderputten said.

The Vanderputtens celebrate on Christmas Day. Relatives gather at a designated family member's home. Most of them live somewhere in West Australia, an hour or two drive from Perth.

Lunch is a huge spread of barbecued beef, pork or chicken, cold cuts, salads, cakes and other desserts.

The Vanderputtens also have a rule--only immediate family members exchange gifts on Christmas Day.

"Otherwise, we would have to save money all year to buy everyone presents," Vanderputten said.

In Australia, the holiday doesn't end on Dec. 25. The parties extend to Boxing Day--a holiday also celebrated in Australia, New Zealand, England and some of the Canadian provinces--on Dec. 26.

Boxing Day originated in England, where trade apprentices would go door-to-door and collect tips from customers for their services throughout the year. It is believed to be the start of a tradition known as the Christmas bonus.

The Vanderputtens celebrate Boxing Day with a champagne breakfast. How long the party lasts "depends on how much champagne is drank," Vanderputten said.

Vanderputten will celebrate Boxing Day this year in Las Vegas, where the Mustangs are playing in the Las Vegas Eldorado holiday tournament.

Juggling the basketball season with the holidays hasn't been easy. But Vanderputten, after all, has his priorities.

Midway through his junior year, Vanderputten decided to forgo his senior year at Warwick Senior High and enroll in the Pacific Intercultural Exchange, which places most of its students in Southern California.

Vanderputten had shown promise early in his high school career, polishing his game against pickup competition such as Luc Longley, a rookie with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Vanderputten played for his high school team but most of his improvement came through his club team, the West Australia Institute.

If the exchange program would have fallen through, Vanderputten likely would have gone to the Australia Institute of Sports in Canberra, where many of the country's national team hopefuls train.

But Vanderputten figures the exposure at Trabuco Hills will help him land a scholarship. Coaches and recruiters have flocked to his games, but he doesn't plan to decide on a college until after his parents visit him in late January.

"A lot of coaches want to speak with them," Vanderputten said.

Because of the distance between them, Vanderputten and his family agreed not to exchange Christmas presents this year. Christmas this year will be with the Poulos family. Diana has planned a big dinner for today--turkey and chestnut dressing, green beans, desserts, the works. And Vanderputten, an avid eater (he loves meat pie, an Australian treat, and tolerates Vegemite with a cast-iron stomach) will surely clean his plate.

"I've been lucky so far," Diana said. "Gavin hasn't turned up his nose at anything yet."

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