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From school pals to partners

Local high school students traveling in packs are shocked when sociology teachers tell them they'll be lucky to maintain just one of their class friendships.

Not only have Anne Leo of West Seneca and Mary Jo Leatherbarrow of Hamburg managed to stay best friends since their Lancaster High School graduation in 1982 -- a friendship that started over three decades ago in the sixth grade -- they also went on to Villa Maria College and now work together.

They are dedicated to public service, sharing their Thanksgiving-season gratitude. As "home stagers," they volunteered for a Habitat for Humanity project for a family needing a free home makeover.

They know that a home is metaphor for self, and what better way to start a new life than with the inside of your dwelling looking as good as the outside.

Both did a bit of soul-searching before finding professional bliss.

"We tried finding our niche, but it wasn't easy," Leo admits. "We drifted for a time, as friends often do, while pursuing our 'career.' Marriage, and life in general, took over, too.

"I went to college for secretarial science only to end up working for a university, a bank and an environmental company," Leo said. "After 10 years of typing and answering phones, I felt incomplete and knew something was missing."

Meanwhile, Leatherbarrow, had been dancing on stage and teaching at Dance Spectrum in Lancaster.

How to decide what to do with your life?

Leo thought back to her earlier life with a younger Mary Jo Leatherbarrow, when the two self-described "nerds" spent their weekends shopping for furniture, accessories and rearranging the furniture in their mothers' homes.

"That's where the love of changing something and making it better visually came into being," Leo said.

They both entered Villa Maria's interior design program.

"Only to finally end up working for the same large furniture company as their visual merchandisers," Leo said. "So, here we are working together, doing something we've loved and getting paid, too." Then they went into business for themselves.

"We felt with the friendship, and the same paths, we were meant to go into business together on our own as 'home stagers,' " Leo said.

In their company, Stage Right, they go to homes and commercial properties and evaluate the investments, providing recommendations. They redesign and make over for a quick sale by helping the buyer see themselves using the space.

That gets it sold faster, maximizing profits. But there will be no profits in their volunteer work. They know how expensive it is to raise a family.

Have an idea about a local person whose life would make a good profile or a neighborhood issue worth exploring? Write to: Louise Continelli, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or e-mail

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