It started with a conversation.
As they watched images of a hurricane-ravaged East Coast on their television, Abbi and Andrew Audas turned to their mother and asked what was going on and what they could do to help.
Like many people watching images of the devastation left in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the Bethesda children were stunned by what they saw and felt compelled to do something.
So while thousands of holiday travelers on Wednesday made their way to warm homes and anticipating crowded Thanksgiving dinner tables, 12-year-old Abbi, 9-year-old Andrew and their parents, Jim and Tiffany, drove a box truck loaded with 125 bags of clothes they collected to hand out in coastal communities in New Jersey and New York as part of their Keep Them Cozy campaign.
"It was horrific," Abbi said from Union Beach, N.J., a seaside town leveled by the storm. "Every house had personal belongings outside -- mattresses, boxes of toys and family photos."
The family left at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday -- mom and daughter in the minivan stocked with their own clothes and supplies, and dad and son in the 16-foot truck loaded with donations.
They dropped off clothes at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission before heading to Union Beach about an hour away to see the destruction still evident in the aftermath of the storm.
"It was very sobering because there was so much damage, but it was amazing how great a spirit people were in," Mrs. Audas said. "The devastation was horrible but right behind it is this beautiful ocean."
On Thursday, the Audases plan to help with clean-up in Union Beach and then to serve Thanksgiving dinner at a shelter. They will return to the Atlantic City rescue mission on Friday, Mrs. Audas said, because it needs the extra help in light of the holiday.
Before Abbi and Andrew knew where they were going, the brother-sister team set to work drawing up fliers that they distributed at their schools. Abbi, a seventh-grader at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School, talked the student government into backing the clothing drive. Andrew ensured that students at Bradley Hills Elementary School took the notices home to show their families.
Sitting at their kitchen table earlier this week, the brown-eyed siblings recalled the night of the Oct. 29 storm and the whirlwind weeks after.
"If you think about it, it could have been us," Abbi said, her eyes growing wide when she considered the possibilities. "Many people lost their homes. It's winter and it's freezing."
From his seat next to his sister, Andrew nodded his head in agreement.
"We wanted to help people recover because it was so sad," he said.
Word began to spread through the schools and neighborhoods. A woman from the Wood Acres community, about 2 miles from the Audases' home, brought over 25 bags full of clothes that her neighbors had collected.
"It was in an avalanche," Andrew recalled breathlessly. "The basement area was covered in bags."
Like an early Christmas Eve, the family would go to sleep at night and in the morning find clothing in one of the boxes they left in their driveway. Sometimes the clothes came labeled from D.C.-area residents. Other times the bags were shipped from other states.
"Every day it was something. Every day it was overflowing," Abbi said.
The ground floor of the Audas family's split-level home turned into a second-hand clothing shop to rival any vintage store's inventory.
Abbi said she and her brother spent all Saturday sorting and organizing the clothes per a request received from shelters in New Jersey, which told the family that because of the extensive damage volunteers had no room to lay out the contents of clothing bags.
Tom Davidson, director of development for the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, said sorting clothes is one of the most time-consuming jobs at the rescue mission.
"My wife was volunteering and found one baby shoe. She put it aside and three days later, on the other side of the building she was emptying a bag and found the match," he said.
Mr. Davidson said the mission has had anywhere from 25 to 100 volunteers at a time from all across the country, though the Thanksgiving holiday has lessened the numbers.
The mission, which serves hungry and homeless people, saw the number of people who now depend on it swell after the storm, Mr. Davidson said.
"We were normally distributing 250 food baskets a month," he said. "Now we're doing 900 or more food baskets a day."
Mr. Davidson said he has heard stories similar to the Audases' with young children moved by the images of the ravaged coastal communities who go out to raise money and donations on their own.
Mrs. Audas said her children have been volunteering for most of their young lives. When Abbi was young enough to fit in a carrier on her father's back, she accompanied him while he volunteered at a women's shelter.
Bradley Hills Principal Sandra Reece said she wasn't surprised to hear about Andrew and his family taking up a charitable cause.
"I think we have students who are very aware, who really feel some responsibility for helping others," Ms. Reece said, adding that the school's parent-teacher association has a new community outreach committee.
"It's hard for kids who don't drive, who don't have any funds themselves, to feel like they're making a difference," Ms. Reece said. "When a family rallies around the kids, they feel like one family can make a difference. That's such an important lesson to learn -- never discount what a person can do. Even if it's small, it does make a difference."
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